By V Sridhar, Badrinarayan M & Girish K
Mobile broadband subscriptions in India are expected to surpass voice-only 2G services very soon—4G LTE subscriptions account for 50% of mobile subscriptions. As per the recent Ericsson Mobility Report, 4G LTE subscriptions will account for 80% and 5G about 11% by 2025 in India. The average data consumption per user in India is about 25 GB per month, equivalent to global levels.
However, where does India stand in terms of data speed? As per recent statistics from Speedtest.net, the average downlink mobile data speed in India is about 11 Mbps; the world average is 30 Mbps. There are a number of parameters that define data speeds. First is the amount of radio spectrum the operator has in the service area—larger the amount of spectrum, more is the capacity of the radio access network that results in higher data speeds. Second is the technology used. Data speeds of 4G are about 10 times more than 3G. The third factor is the infrastructure such as cell towers with the evolved Node B (eNodeB) deployed by the operator in providing broadband access—nearer the cell tower from a mobile device, better is the signal quality and consequently higher data speed. Data speeds also depend on the number of subscribers in a specific area—more subscribers in a given area consume more network capacity, resulting in network congestion, which, in turn, reduces speeds. While the first three parameters are supply-side variables, the subscriber base as a proxy for capacity used is a demand-side variable.
The MySpeed app was released by Trai to crowdsource the experience of users on data speeds. We analysed 2.6 million records collected by MySpeed for the period March 2018 to September 2019, augmenting it with spectrum and subscriber data. The average data speed of different operator networks in the same service area differs significantly. For example, while the lowest average speeds in Delhi and Karnataka are 0.0015 Mbps and 0.0019 Mbps, respectively, the highest are 24.07 Mbps and 20.82 Mbps. The difference may be due to either supply-side or demand-side factors, or both.
A panel regression of the data set indicates that the deployed access infrastructure such as cell towers with eNodeB do significantly affect experienced data speeds. Operators have to optimally deploy tower infrastructure to provide coverage of specific areas. If there are no cell towers nearby, it is likely that experienced data speeds are lower.
As citizens have become more conscious about the possible ill-effects of radio frequencies, they normally are hesitant in sharing their building rooftops and community areas for cell towers. Though the National Digital Communications Policy provides infrastructure status to telecom companies, municipal clearances required for deploying infrastructure in public places and government land are still too cumbersome, resulting in uncovered areas. While China has one cell tower for every 700 subscribers, India’s tower density is one per 2,000 subscribers. When operators deploy 5G technologies using high-frequency centimetre and millimetre waves (in 3.4-3.6 GHz and 28 GHz), micro cells need to be created. These require small antennas to be deployed in existing civic infrastructure such as light poles. A demonstration of 5G deployment in Espoo, Finland, indicates smart light poles with integrated antennas, base stations, sensors, screens and other devices can provide seamless 5G high-speed coverage. New technologies and business models for co-owning light poles are emerging. If India is to tap the potential high speeds of 4G and 5G, it is important that civic authorities make it easier for telecom and internet firms to obtain right of way to deploy infrastructure, including laying optic fibre cables and setting up towers.
Apart from access infrastructure, spectrum holding also affects data speeds. According to Fierce Wireless, AT&T and Sprint hold 150 MHz and 200 MHz, respectively, of radio spectrum per service area, while in India the maximum spectrum holding by an operator is not even 50 MHz. It is important that more spectrum, both in sub-GHz (for example, 700 MHz) for better coverage of rural areas and high frequencies for better capacity in urban areas, be released by the government if we want operators to provide higher data speeds. We depend more and more on high-speed data for financial transactions, learning from live streaming lectures, ordering goods from e-commerce firms, booking cabs and so on.
(Sridhar is professor, Badrinarayan & Girish are students, IIIT Bangalore)