The State of 4G in Brazil

LTE connections have seen increased adoption by Brazilian mobile internet users in recent years. In this article we will look at the current state of 4G mobile internet in Brazil.

History and auctions for LTE spectrums in Brazil

LTE is currently the only technology marketed as 4G mobile connections in Brazil. The technology was first introduced in Brazil by satellite TV operator SKY in 2011, the company’s first effort at launching a home internet subscription service. Mobile phone LTE connections were only made available in the country in 2012, following an auction by the Brazilian Telecommunications Agency, or Anatel, of 2.5GHz bandwidth spectrums to the largest Brazilian carriers, Vivo, Claro, Tim and Oi.

Following the auction, these carriers were given a series of requirements by Anatel for the implementation of LTE networks, such as covering all cities which hosted the 2014 Fifa World Cup matches by the end of 2013 and covering all Brazilian cities with over 200,000 inhabitants by the end of 2015, while also being required to offer 4G connections in certain rural areas using the 450MHz spectrum.

After testing in a number of Brazilian cities, Northeastern state capital Recife was the first to receive 4G coverage in Brazil, provided by carrier Claro in December 2012. The year 2013 saw the rapid expansion of LTE networks, mostly motivated by auction requirements. By the end of the year, 81 Brazilian municipalities had 4G coverage, including the 12 cities that hosted the Fifa World Cup.

In September 2014, Anatel set up a second auction for LTE spectrum, this one regarding the 700 MHz spectrum. The delay in the offer of these frequencies was caused by the country’s analogue TV transmission system, which was undergoing a transition to digital systems that would free these frequencies for 4G mobile internet offering in the country.

One controversial aspect of this auction was that the winners Claro, Tim and Vivo were required to refund the costs of Brazilian TV companies that transitioned from analogue to digital transmission formats, a process that is expected to start in 2016 and end in 2019. Until these dates, the offering of 4G networks in Brazil remains limited to the 2,5GHz spectrum.

Offering of 4G plans by Brazilian Carriers

The four main Brazilian carriers, Vivo, Claro, TIM and Oi, offer 4G plans with relatively similar pricing. On average, monthly plans of 4G mobile broadband with a limit of 1GB of traffic are charged around BRL 75. It is important to note that, according to the contract for all these plans, download speeds are capped at 5Mbps.

According to Anatel, there were 7.7 million 4G connections in Brazil as of January 2015. Carrier Vivo is the current leader in offering 4G plans, with 2.9 million customers, or 37% of the country’s market. Carrier TIM is in second place, with 2.5 million customers, followed by Claro, with 1.5 million and Oi with 580 thousand.

4G coverage in Brazil

Data from Anatel indicates that, as of January 2015, 147 Brazilian municipalities are covered by 4G signals, including the 23 state capitals and the country’s Federal District, which in total represent 41,8% of the country’s population.

The market leader in terms of population covered is carrier Vivo, which offers LTE connections to 141 municipalities, followed by Claro, which offers connections to 95 municipalities, or 37,1% of the Brazilian population. Carriers Tim and Oi both offer 4G connections to 45 municipalities, which represent close to 30% of the Brazilian population.

One important aspect to be noted about the implementation and coverage of 4G connections in Brazil is that, due to regulatory and economic conditions, signals are mostly available in large city areas. This has to do, for example, with requirements applied by Anatel to the carriers which won the 2012 auction, which are related to the provision of 4G signals to cities with a large number of inhabitants.

Quality of 4G Signals in Brazil

A report by wireless network database provider OpenSignal published on March 2015 and based on 90,000 users of the company’s app in Brazil, presents interesting statistics about the current state of 4G connections in the country.

In terms of speed, Brazilian connections are placed in 22nd in a list of 29 countries, with an average 11Mbps. Their survey data indicates that carriers Claro and Oi offer the fastest connections in the country, at close to 12Mbps, while carriers Vivo and Tim offer connection speeds at around 6Mbps.

The research also indicates 4G in Brazil does not provide quality coverage. OpenSignal’s index, which measures how long users are connected to LTE networks per day, places the country at 26th in the list. According to their data, on average, Brazilian users are connected to LTE networks 44% of the total time connected to mobile internet.

OpenSignal’s research results reveal that, for one, Brazilian carriers are not able to provide a reliable, consistent 4G signal to their customers, which is most likely related to the limited geographic locations which these networks are covering. As Brazilians constantly transit between locations, and LTE networks remain somewhat restricted to determinate regions, getting a consistent signal becomes a challenge to the point that coverage indexes are found to be some of the worse in analysed countries.

Also, the speed of the connections provided are noticeably low when compared to other countries, an indicator of the troubles these carriers face when sharing the same backhauls with the many customers of mobile internet in the country. An interesting aspect about 4G in Brazil is that, while carriers offer plans with a maximum download speed of 5Mbps, actual speeds can reach upwards of 12Mbps, an indication that the current low number of users of these networks might benefit the quality of service offered in the country.

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