Indian users in cities saw mobile speeds rise quickly post-COVID-19 lockdown

As India adapts to the new normal that includes social distancing, quarantines, and lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the internet has become critical. With users now spending more time connected to the internet for a wide range of day-to-day activities — including working from home, virtual classes, and entertainment — it has become crucial for mobile network operators to provide users with quality services. The lockdown has also led to a mass migration of India’s interstate migrant workers from cities to their hometowns in suburban or rural areas, which means users may be spending more time in parts of the country where operators originally may have not designed network infrastructure to manage large traffic loads.

Opensignal analyzed the Download Speed Experience seen by Indian smartphone users in the last five months to understand how their mobile network experience changed during COVID-19 compared to that observed before the lockdown. We found that Indian users experienced a negative impact on download speeds during the initial phases of lockdown, and this trend was more pronounced in Tier 2 cities compared to Tier 1 cities. However, more recently — when lockdown measures were partially or completely relaxed — Download Speed Experience improved significantly, especially for users in Tier 1 cities.

For this insight we used the Indian government’s three tier classification system for cities, where Tier 1 cities have the largest populations and Tier 3 cities have the lowest.

Tier 2 cities were the most affected during the lockdown
While our users in most of the cities experienced similar download speeds during the first seven weeks in our analysis, they observed a significant change in the third week of March (starting March 16) — when the government introduced the Janta Curfew (a one-day lockdown). In the following three weeks when a strict countrywide lockdown was imposed, we recorded a sharp decline in overall download speeds, suggesting congestion on mobile networks. Our users saw their Download Speed Experience decline by 16%, while their counterparts in Tier 3 and Tier 2 cities saw greater declines of 23% and 25% respectively, on average. This trend continued until the end of Phase 1 of lockdown — the second week of April (ending 12 April) — as more and more users stayed at home, and likely consumed more data on mobile networks. Our users in Tier 2 cities saw some of the major declines in Phase 1, especially in cities such as Solapur, Ludhiana, Nashik, Surat and Ahmedabad, where average download speeds dropped by 35% or more compared to pre-lockdown levels.

As we moved further into the second phase (April 13-May 3) of the lockdown, Indian users continued to see significantly lower download speeds compared to pre-lockdown levels, although the speeds gradually improved over time. In the third phase (May 4-May 17) the speeds returned to pre-lockdown levels in a majority of cities.

Overall download speeds showed slightly different patterns in Tier 1 cities. Bangalore and Chennai did not see any significant decrease in download speeds, while users in Pune saw a decline of 6.9%-12.5% which was limited to Phase 1 of lockdown. Also, in the remaining Tier 1 cities the speeds started returning to normal in the second phase (April 15-May 13).

India’s urban users experience faster download speeds post-lockdown
Towards the end of the fourth phase of lockdown (May 18-31), the overall download speeds for our users in a majority of cities had returned to normal, showing no significant difference from pre-lockdown levels. At the same time, users in some of the cities started to see significantly faster download speeds, and we saw this trend expanding to more cities during the period when lockdown was relaxed from July 1 onwards. This pattern appeared earlier in Tier 1 cities, where there was a more pronounced improvement in download speeds

In the last week of our analysis (week ending July 12) our users in Delhi saw the greatest improvement of 38.1% in download speed, followed by users in Mumbai (33.5%), Hyderabad (33.1%), Gaziabad (32.4%) and Chennai (30.4%). That said, Dhanbad, Kanpur, Solapur and Thiruvananthapuram were the exceptions where our users continued to see significantly lower download speeds throughout the period when lockdown loosened.

Although it may seem intuitive that an increase in mobile data usage, fueled by removal of data limits or cheaper data packages from operators, caused the fall in overall download speeds, there are multiple other factors that also affected the experience. An example was mobile usage happening at different hours of the day. With shifts in users' behavior occurring during the lockdown, the average speeds started falling during non-peak hours, bringing down overall speeds. It is also worth considering that operators may have taken pre-emptive measures to reduce the risk of outages by reducing the maximum speeds for many users to reduce the amount of data their network can handle. Similar to this, we have seen video providers like Netflix and Youtube reduce video quality to grapple with bandwidth stress. But why have the speeds significantly improved during the later phases in many of India’s cities?

One explanation is the change in the location of mobile usage, as millions of Indians working in cities have moved back to their hometowns in suburbs or rural areas to mitigate the risks from losing their livelihood. When we looked at the national Download Speed Experience, we observed that the average download speeds may have returned to normal in the later phases of the lockdown. However, we didn't see any significant improvements when lockdown was relaxed, unlike in Tier 1 cities. It was noteworthy that users in Tier 1 cities saw a greater improvement in Download Speed Experience compared to their counterparts in Tier 2 cities: speeds in Tier 1 cities improved by 24% compared to 6% increase in Tier 2 cities, in the last week of our analysis (ending July 12). Also, users in many Tier 2 cities like Raipur, Nagpur and Nashik didn't see any improvement. This suggests that relatively fewer numbers of users were connecting to mobile data services in the largest cities, generating less demand and underutilizing the network infrastructure that is meant to support large traffic loads.