Peter Boyland, Senior Analyst
Brazil is showing some keen signs of development — both in its mobile network experience and in its economy as a whole. But South America's largest market still faces a number of challenges as it matures — not least in the vast size of the country and the wide variations in its geography and topology, ranging from large sprawling cities and the mountainous coastal south to the vast forests of the Amazon. After decades of migration from agricultural regions, over three-quarters of Brazilians now live in urban areas — but even the cities have yet to enjoy the same level of mobile network experience we see in more developed countries.
Brazil's statistics office, the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE) has analyzed the country by topography and population density, and has categorized municipalities as "Urban", "Intermediate" and "Rural". The IBGE found that while 76% of the Brazilian population was found in Urban areas, these only corresponded to 26% of the total municipalities. And there were some pretty big regional variations — in the Northeast, over one-third of the population lived in Rural areas, compared to less than 1% in the South.
These huge variations in topography and population density provide significant challenges for Brazil's mobile operators. Opensignal has analyzed 4G Availability across the country based on the IBGE definitions, and found that while our users in Urban areas enjoy 4G access 75% of the time, this drops to less than 41% in Rural municipalities. When we examined access to all data networks (3G and 4G services combined), there was less variation — but 3G/4G Availability still dropped from 90% in Urban regions to less than 74% in Rural.
Brazil has traditionally been behind its peers in Latin America in terms of 4G Availability, but the country is now starting to catch up. Our most recent report on the market found TIM had become the first to pass the 80% mark in our 4G Availability metric, while the operator managed to top 90% in 10 of the cities we analyzed. But there remains a gap between the mobile network experience we measured across Brazil's operators, as Oi's national score was over 20 percentage points behind the leader TIM.
This disparity between the operators is reflected in our analysis of rural vs. urban 4G Availability. Our users on TIM's network enjoyed the highest connectivity in urban municipalities, of over 84%, while this dropped to under 64% for Oi's users. And this was even more extreme in rural municipalities, where TIM users enjoyed over 50% 4G Availability, while Oi's users could only connect to a 4G network less than 14% of the time.
Looking at 3G/4G Availability for Brazil's operators — the percentage of time our users were able to connect to either 3G or 4G networks — we saw much higher scores, and a very close race between the leading three operators Claro, TIM and Vivo. All three had scores over 90% in urban municipalities, with barely a percentage point separating them. And Vivo scored top in rural municipalities with 3G/4G Availability over 80%, while our users on Claro and TIM enjoyed scores around 75%. Oi was some way behind the pack with an urban score over 10 percentage points behind, while its rural 3G/4G Availability was less than half of Claro and Vivo's.
In Brazil's cities, we're really starting to see the full impact of 700 MHz spectrum which has been auctioned and is coming online due to the graduated switchover from analog TV use. Our recent analysis found our users in Rio de Janeiro were feeling some of the biggest benefits, with 4G Availability in the capital jumping from under 70% at the beginning of 2018 to nearly 78% at the end of March 2019. Oi doesn't currently have access to this 700 MHz spectrum, which is reflected in its notably lower 4G Availability scores. But the operator could still secure a licence for the band as the regulator is set to hold a second auction early next year.
One of the benchmarks of true mobile network maturity we see in leading markets is consistency. While we regularly see 4G Availability scores of over 90% across Asia, Europe and North America, only four of the markets we've analyzed — Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands and South Korea — have managed this score across all of their networks. So it's no surprise to see all four in the top ten for 4G Availability in our recent global State of Mobile Experience report. Brazil was firmly in the bottom half of this table, below much smaller Latin American neighbours including the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. But there is little doubt the country's mobile network experience is improving — and the new spectrum releases and network sharing deals will hopefully accelerate this.
Note on topography classification
The source of the topography mapping data is Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatstica (IBGE) (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics). They explain the criteria as such:
The study presents a classification of the rural and urban spaces by municipality and establishes the same criteria for the whole country. There are three basic criteria for such classification: demographic density, localization in relation to the main urban centers and population size. After the analysis of the criteria, the municipalities were classified as "urban", "rural" or "intermediate". The methodology applied is in line with that of international organizations, such as the European Union, and countries such as the United States. Therefore, comparability with Brazilian results is made possible.