How to improve Indonesia’s mobile experience by accelerating 3G switch-off

To accelerate the digital transformation in Indonesia, Kominfo ( Ministry of Communication and Information Technology ) recently auctioned 30 MHz of spectrum in the 2.3 GHz band intended to complement the needs of 4G technology and initiate the implementation of 5G technology. But while Indonesia is making strides to adopt fifth-generation networks, a significant proportion of its population still relies on old 3G network technology. This means Indonesian operators face challenges with switching off 3G networks and re-using that existing wireless spectrum for more efficient 4G technology now and in time for 5G.

Opensignal investigated why some of our users — which we call “3G-only users” — have never connected to a 4G network. Our analysis found three primary reasons why many smartphone users in Indonesia never connected to 4G networks and continue to depend upon 3G.

1. Users do not have a 4G subscription: Our data shows that 67.5% of our 3G-only users in Indonesia had a 4G-capable smartphone and spent time in 4G-covered areas (where we saw other smartphone users connecting to 4G networks on the same mobile network provider). These 3G-only users likely did not upgrade to a 4G subscription (as they may not be aware of its benefits) or may have disabled 4G connections on their phones. This indicates that if Indonesia’s mobile operators were to introduce compelling 4G rate plans and explain the benefits of 4G to improve users’ mobile experience, they could likely swiftly migrate the vast majority of 3G-only users to 4G and use modern and efficient 4G, and in time 5G, technology to improve the overall mobile experience.
2. Users don't have a 4G-capable device: 16.8% of our 3G-only users in Indonesia spent time in 4G-covered areas but did not have a 4G-capable smartphone. Several factors could contribute to this. For example, 4G-enabled smartphones are becoming increasingly affordable, but affordability remains a barrier for low-income users. For others, it could be limited digital skills, due to which they stick to simpler smartphones, or it could be a lack of awareness of differences between 3G and 4G devices. 
3. Users are not covered by 4G networks: 10.9% of our 3G-only users had 4G-capable smartphone devices but spent their time in areas where we have never seen a 4G measurement from them on their mobile network operator. This suggests that they did not connect to 4G networks because they spent time in areas outside of 4G coverage. In addition, 4.9% of our 3G-only users lacked both 4G coverage and 4G-capable devices, which brings the number of Indonesian 3G-only users outside of the 4G footprint to 15.8%

3G-only users have a worse mobile experience compared to 4G users

Opensignal’s analysis reveals that Indonesia’s 3G-only smartphone users experienced significantly lower download speeds averaging 5.5 Mbps —  60% slower than that experienced by our 4G users (13.9 Mbps). Furthermore, 3G-only users connected to mobile data networks 82.4% of the time — 14.4 percentage points lower than their counterparts with a 4G connection. This suggests that 3G-only users in 4G-covered areas would observe a substantial uplift in their mobile experience if they were to upgrade to 4G.

Indonesian operators need to clear 2G and 3G spectrum for 4G/5G use

Indonesia has seen significant improvement in mobile network experience in the past few years. However, the way spectrum is used for mobile services constrains the country from realizing its full potential. To increase efficiency and optimize the use of available frequency bands, Indonesian operators have started to refarmed parts of the 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz bands for 4G. But operators still depend on 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands to provide 2G and 2100 MHz to provide 3G, to support some users.

However, if these bands can be used for 4G services, the mobile experience will improve for Indonesians because 4G, and future 5G networks, are more efficient at using spectrum capacity than old 2G and 3G technology. The newer standards can support faster speeds, more data usage, more users (or even a combination of the three) in the same MHz band compared with 2G and 3G.

In the recent re-auction of the 2.3 GHz frequency, Telkomsel and Smartfren won 20 MHz and 10 MHz of spectrum, respectively. Kominfo conducted this auction to accelerate 4G mobile network infrastructure and future implementation of 5G. While Telkomsel has revealed plans to deploy 5G on this band with a bandwidth of 30 MHz in the range of 2,300 MHz to 2,330 MHz, Smartfren plans to increase the capacity and quality of existing services as well as expand the network to areas where they don’t have a footprint.

On the other hand, XL didn’t get the new spectrum and plans to maximize its existing holding for 4G. Meanwhile, 3 has partnered with Nokia to deploy spectrum sharing (DSS) technology for 3G and 4G on its live network.

Migrating 3G-only users to 4G could be a win-win in Indonesia

Opensignal data shows a huge disparity exists in the mobile network experience of our 3G-only and 4G users in Indonesia. Our analysis shows that the main reason why some smartphone users don’t benefit from 4G yet is a lack of 4G subscription, rather than 4G coverage. As the country advances towards 5G, Indonesian operators will benefit from migrating 3G-only users to 4G and refarming 2G/3G spectrum bands to 4G services. That will help accelerate the deployment of 4G and 5G networks which could bridge the digital divide in the country and improve smartphone users’ overall mobile network experience, driving positive social and economic outcomes.