Understanding why so many German smartphone users are still 3G-only

Opensignal analyzed the mobile experience of our German smartphone users who have never accessed mobile data on a 4G network (we are calling this group of users “3G-only” users in the rest of our analysis). We found that 81.4% of our 3G-only users had a 4G-capable smartphone and visited areas where 4G exists — indicating that the most likely reason they have not used 4G is because they did not have a 4G subscription. And our data shows that those users who did not upgrade seriously impaired their mobile experience.

A decade after the launch of 4G technology, we are now seeing the rise of commercial 5G networks in Europe, with Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the UK leading with the new technology. But while some operators might be moving fast into the 5G future, are consumers tagging along? If not, operators will find it hard to switch off legacy 3G networks in order to deploy more efficient newer technologies to improve users’ mobile experience. 

According to the German regulator — the Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur) — at the end of 2018, there were 107.5m active SIM cards in Germany (excluding M2M and IoT cards), but only 50.5m 4G/LTE SIM cards in active use. This would indicate that roughly half of the active SIM cards were not LTE-enabled, suggesting that a fair share of mobile users might not be planning to upgrade to faster networks and a better mobile experience any time soon.

Opensignal analyzed our German smartphone users’ mobile experience and identified three major reasons why our users did not connect to 4G networks:

1. Users do not subscribe to a 4G plan: 81.4% of our users that we have never seen connecting to 4G had a 4G-capable phone and spent time in 4G-covered areas, where we saw other users on the same mobile operator connecting to 4G networks. These users likely did not upgrade to a 4G subscription or have disabled 4G connections on their phones.

2. Users do not have a 4G device: 15.6% of our users who didn’t connect to 4G networks spent time in 4G-covered areas but did not have a 4G-capable device. The reason these users did not connect to 4G networks was that they used an older 3G smartphone that is incapable of connecting to 4G.

3. Users are not covered by 4G networks: 3% of our users only spent time in areas where we have never seen a 4G measurement on their mobile network operator, suggesting that the main reason why they did not connect to 4G networks was that they likely lived in remote areas where their operator doesn’t yet offer 4G technology. The small percentage shows that 4G coverage issues are not the main reason for the large numbers of 3G-only users in Germany.

The vast majority of our users who did not connect to 4G likely chose not to subscribe to a 4G plan. However, in a market where mobile operators are now focusing on 5G and actively talking about switching off 3G networks, is a 3G-only mobile data experience still competitive?


Users not subscribing to 4G are impairing their mobile experience

Our smartphone users who did not connect to 4G because they lacked a 4G plan on average had an 8.6 Mbps Download Speed Experience, which was 16.6 Mbps lower than the speeds our 4G users experienced on average.

Not only did our users without a 4G subscription have a slower Download Speed Experience, but they spent half of their time not connected to mobile data (3G/4G) networks, either because they connected to 2G networks — meaning that they would not realistically be able to enjoy mobile data services — or they had no mobile signal at all.

Germany’s mobile operators mainly rely on the 2100 MHz band to offer legacy 3G services. While that spectrum band allows up to double-digit speeds — as we see that our users on average enjoy about 9 Mbps when connected to 3G — the 2100 MHz band offers worse signal propagation compared to sub-1 GHz frequency bands, such as the 800 MHz band that is one of the bands used for 4G in Germany.

We can also see how these spectrum bands’ properties affect our users’ experience. Our 4G users spent almost 90% of their time connected to either 4G or 3G, while our smartphone users not subscribing to 4G were able to access 3G networks less than 50% of their time.

Because operators have been deploying and upgrading their 4G networks for the last decade and are making use of the improved signal propagation of the 800 MHz 4G band, users are more likely to get a connection to mobile data networks if they are able to connect to a 4G network.


Opensignal data shows that our 3G-only users have a much worse mobile experience than our 4G users, particularly to the point that they spend up to half of their time with no mobile data connection. This leads us to wonder whether these users are interested in using mobile data services at all. Assuming that the majority of 3G-only users are mainly interested in voice rather than data services, that raises the question whether it would serve consumers better that mobile operators refarmed the 3G spectrum to 4G sooner rather than later. This way, mobile operators will likely improve their 4G users’ experience — which we have already showed varies greatly across Germany — while they could keep offering voice services on their 2G networks for those non-4G users who may be less interested in using mobile data services, and are unlikely to upgrade to either 4G or 5G. 

Germany is looking to accelerate its 5G network deployments, and the operators have agreed to increase their 4G footprint as part of the expanded coverage obligations included in the recently-auctioned 5G spectrum licenses. However, Opensignal data shows that only 3% of our users not seen on 4G networks live in areas not covered by 4G technology, while the vast majority of our German users who are not connecting to 4G have simply not upgraded to a 4G plan or have disabled 4G on their phones. These users are getting a far worse mobile experience, which in turn suggests that the promise of faster speeds and better connections might not sway them to spend more to upgrade to 5G, given they haven’t even switched to 4G.

While 4G was the network evolution that allowed mass consumers to enjoy video content on their smartphones — sparking the ever-increasing growth of mobile data traffic we are seeing today — 5G has yet to find an appealing use case for the masses beyond looking at how fast a speed measurement can get with gigabit speeds. Yes, the 5G train in Germany is lurching forward, but are consumers really getting onboard?