It’s a good time to be a mobile customer in India with Airtel expanding its LTE service in major cities using the 900 MHz band and Jio making continuous progress on its mission to provide 4G coverage to all Indians. All this good news made us want to check in to see what cellular availability in India currently looks like.
We analyzed General Availability and 4G Availability using coverage data from 250,138,853 samples on 595,034 enabled devices during Q3-Q4 2018. General Availability is the percentage of an operator’s known locations where a device has access to any kind of service (including roaming). 4G Availability is then the percentage of an operator’s known locations where a device has access to LTE service (including roaming). We compared these results across Indian mobile operators to see which provides the best availability.
Cellular service is widely available across India
General Availability statistics are good for all of India’s major mobile operators. In a country where there are only 1.33 fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people, access to mobile internet is critical. Jio’s General Availability was best, with users finding service in 99.3% of locations. Airtel was second at 99.1%, followed closely by Vodafone (99.0%) and Idea (98.9%).
Coverage data relies on the presence of a user in a location, so it’s normal to see the majority of results that show coverage (seen in blue) coming from the most populated areas. When a sample is taken and a user does not have cellular coverage (seen in red), that data is transmitted later. Areas that show no dot are places where no coverage data was collected. These gaps often correspond with national parks or other remote areas that people visit less frequently.
Jio showed the densest pattern of coverage samples for General Availability across India, with only a few areas where coverage data showed no service.
Airtel’s pattern of coverage samples showed only slightly fewer areas with coverage. Airtel had only slightly more “no service” areas, particularly in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.
Idea and Vodafone had a similar density of coverage samples showing coverage but were strong in different parts of the country. Idea showed more density in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, while Vodafone was stronger in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Neither showed a large number of “no service” areas.
4G availability in India depends on your mobile operator
LTE connections, while widely available in much of India, depend heavily on which mobile operator a consumer has chosen. At a country-level, Jio shows an impressive 98.8% 4G Availability. That means that a Jio customer has access to LTE service at 98.8% of surveyed locations. Airtel is second at 90.0%, followed by Vodafone (84.6%) and Idea (82.8%).
Coverage data from the four largest mobile operators reveals that LTE is not available in all the areas that general cell service is in India. This is especially true in the center of the country, in Sikkim and in the Andaman Islands.
Airtel’s 4G Availability is still very dense but shows gaps in LTE coverage in many areas of the country including portions of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.
As we saw with overall scores, the 4G Availability for Vodafone reveals that the operator’s LTE coverage is not as robust as their overall coverage. We saw major gaps in Vodafone’s LTE in Karnataka in particular and smaller gaps in northeastern India in general (with the exception of the most populated areas of West Bengal).
Idea’s 4G Availability shows gaps in LTE service across the country, especially in less densely populated areas.
4G Availability does not equal fast speeds
Until 5G is rolled out, LTE is the fastest connection type available to consumers. India shows us, however, that 4G Availability does not automatically equate to fastest service. To compare which of India’s largest mobile operators is fastest, we’ve used Speed ScoreTM, a combined measure of download and upload speed that incorporates several tiers of performance.
Airtel was the fastest mobile operator in India during Q3-Q4 2018, regardless of whether a customer was on LTE or not. The ranking of the other operators does not change based on LTE use with Vodafone taking second fastest, Jio third and Idea fourth.
As the above table shows, Jio’s commitment to LTE remained unwavering as demonstrated by the fact that the operator’s Speed Score did not change when looking at all technologies or on LTE alone. We cannot say why Jio’s speeds were slower than those of Airtel and Vodafone, but it’s likely a combination of network congestion and users accessing the Jio network with slower phones.
We’ll be interested to see how these numbers improve in the near term as operators continue to build out their networks.
How general and LTE availability look in India’s largest cities
Country-wide averages can hide a lot of information. To get a clearer picture of the customer experience across the country, we looked at General and 4G Availability as well as operator speeds in the 15 largest cities in India.
General Availability is strong
General Availability was good (in the 98-99% range) for India’s largest mobile operators in most of India’s 15 largest cities. Airtel showed General Availability of 99% or higher in all 15. Jio’s lowest score (in Jaipur) was still high at 98.9%. Vodafone’s only score below 99% was in Kolkata (97.9%). Idea, on the other hand, showed General Availability scores below 99% in six cities: Hyderabad (98.8%), Delhi (98.3%), Jaipur (98.0%), Kolkata (97.9%), Visakhapatnam (97.9%) and Indore (96.6%).
While these scores are all good, consistent mobile service is important to the quality of life. If a consumer is living in one of the small sections of these cities that are not well served by their mobile operator it could mean they don’t have access to internet at home, school or where they do business.
4G Availability is all over the map
India’s largest mobile operators were not nearly as consistent with their 4G Availability in India’s largest cities during Q3-Q4 2018 as they were with General Availability. The exception was Jio, which still only showed one city (Jaipur) that was barely below 99%. This is no surprise given Jio’s 98.8% country-wide 4G Availability.
Airtel’s 4G Availability ranged from 92.9% in Visakhapatnam to 97.5% in Bengaluru. Vodafone’s 4G Availability ranged from 74.9% in Hyderabad to 98.0% in Ahmedabad, with two cities in the 70-79.9% band and one in the 80-89.9% band. Idea had the widest spread in 4G Availability — from 38.8% in Delhi to 96.2% in Bengaluru. This includes one city in the 60-69.9% band and three in the 80-89.9% band.
Taking a weighted average of the 4G Availability scores based on a number of samples, Kanpur showed the best 4G Availability in India during Q3-Q4 2018 at 98.2%. Bengaluru and Lucknow tied for second and third at 97.6%. Delhi was at the bottom of the list with 93.0%, Kolkata second to last at 95.4% and Pune third to last at 95.9%.
The availability of LTE in India’s largest cities contrasts with our analysis of fixed broadband speeds from last year, which found Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad on top. In that analysis, Delhi ranked fifth, Kanpur fourth to last and Lucknow in the middle.
How a combined Vodafone-Idea could change the map
Vodafone and Idea merged in 2018, but the brands continue to operate independently. If that were to change, we’d expect to see better General Availability for all customers as the two brands’ coverage areas are complementary. 4G Availability would also improve, but not immediately to the level of that of Jio or Airtel because many gaps would remain. In the long run, though, combining operations could allow the two brands to reallocate resources and invest in better LTE coverage, particularly in Karnataka.―Isla McKetta, Content Manager at Ookla