2016 was a revolutionary year for the Indian Telecom Industry. The usually stable and languid industry was thrown into chaos by Reliance Communications Ltd. (NSE:RCOM). The launch of Reliance Jio metaphorically threw the among the pigeons. Since then, all of the major telecom providers in India have been scrambling to retain customers and maintain their market share.

Now that the dust has settled a little bit, various institutions have started releasing their reports and data listing the best 4G network providers in India. These reports, however, have triggered a tug of war between network providers due to the discrepancy in data and claims. Most of them, especially Airtel and Reliance Jio, has locked horn in a bid to claim the numero uno position in 4G space.

Therefore, it is a good time to analyse all the reports, their claims and the state of telecom networks, both in terms of quality and quantity, to understand which network emerges as a clear winner.

Is Reliance Jio The Most Ubiquitous 4G Network In India

One of the biggest promises that Reliance Jio made during its launch window was regarding how their network would penetrate every corner of India. Mukesh Ambani said that Reliance Jio would cover 99% of India’s population by the end of 2017. If the latest data by OpenSignal – one of the leading sources of insight into the coverage and performance of Mobile Operators worldwide – is anything to go by, Jio is well and truly on track to do just that. Testers were able to connect to Jio’s LTE network 91.6% of the time, nationally. This number is astounding, and more than 30 points above Rio’s nearest competitor. Vodafone and Idea both managed only 59% whereas market leader Airtel languished at a paltry 54.7%. This would suggest that Airtel, Vodafone and Idea are still relying on their 3G networks to a large extent unlike the 4G only Jio.

Jio’s coverage depth is even impressive on a global scale. According to OpenSignal’s own State of LTE report, Jio’s achievement of over 90% availability is only matched by very few operators globally.

However, Jio’s dominance in network coverage is not wholly surprising. Jio’s extensive network along with their penetration in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities is the driving factor behind their dominance. Reliance has laid out nearly 350,000 km of fibre optic networking, as opposed to market leader Airtel’s 49,000 km.

Jio Opts for Quantity Over Quality

Unfortunately, Jio’s overwhelming superiority in network coverage has come at a steep cost. While Jio has managed to offer its services to a large number of users, as a result, their network quality has deteriorated. In OpenSignal’s 4G speed tests, Airtel flexed its muscles with an average 4G (LTE) download speed at 11.5 Mbps. Reliance clocked in at a very poor 3.9 Mbps. Both Vodafone and Idea managed moderate speeds of 8.59 Mbps and 8.34 Mbps, respectively.

This situation is made even worse for Jio if we factor in 3G speeds. Airtel and Vodafone’s 3G download speeds clocked in at an average of 4.77 Mbps and 4.30 Mbps, respectively. These speeds are actually higher than Jio’s average 4G download speeds. These numbers would suggest that Airtel and Vodafone’s 3G networks are actually faster than Jio’s 4G!

Of course, download speeds are not the only adjudicating factor when it comes to network quality. Latency is an important measure which decides the quality of VOLTE, video calling and general snappiness of the network. Lower latency score is generally a sign of a more responsive network. Once again, Reliance Jio fared poorly here. Jio’s network was found to have the most latency. Vodafone managed to dethrone Airtel and Idea and won the latency award by scoring the lowest 54.3 milliseconds in 4G ping tests and 83.7 milliseconds in 3G ping tests.

It is clear from these numbers that Reliance’s network quality is nowhere near its competitors. Despite their extensive infrastructure and reach, the network was put under enormous pressure due to the free introductory offer with unlimited data. Once Reliance Jio fully transitions to a paid subscription model with data caps, network quality should improve. Expect Reliance to bounce back in this respect in the near future.

TRAI’s MySpeed Data: An Alternative Perspective

However, the data from Opensignal doesn’t quite add up to TRAI’s MySpeed data. This data puts Reliance Jio’s download speeds at 16.48 Mbps for the month of February. This is nearly double than what was offered by rivals Idea (8.33 Mbps) and Airtel (7.66 Mbps). In fact this was the subject of a big clash between Reliance and Airtel, eventually ending with the ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) asking Airtel to remove the fastest network in India tag from their advertising. There is a lot of ugly fighting going on between the major operators in India. Each party is attempting to spin the facts in their favour to influence public opinion.

TRAI’s data shows a remarkable inconsistency in Jio’s speed ratings. Jio’s speeds skyrocketed in November and December of 2016 but fell quite dramatically in January of 2017. This can be attributed to Jio’s very unexpected business strategy so far. Nearing the end of the free introductory offer, speeds went up in Nov-Dec because of a possible exodus of subscribers from the Jio network, resulting in higher speeds and lower stress on network infrastructure. However, the announcement of the extension of the free offer around the new year may have driven many users back to Jio causing the subsequent drop in speeds.

This would suggest that as Jio enters its paid subscription model permanently, we can expect a substantial increase in speeds.

Takeaways

  • OpenSignal’s data suggests that Jio’s network continues to buckle under the pressure of its enormous subscriber base. The poor network quality on offer may cause many users to jump ship to Airtel, Idea or Vodafone.
  • Jio’s network is unsuitable for VOLTE and video calling applications due to its high latency.
  • However, Jio remains the only 4G option for many parts of India due to their extensive coverage. Due to a lack of universal national presence of many major operators, Jio may reign supreme in the more remote parts of India.
  • TRAI’s MySpeed data seems to contradict OpenSignal’s findings as it places Jio firmly in the lead when it comes to 4G download speeds.