India embraces LTE tech as 4G buzz gets louder

When 4G LTE (long-term evolution) smartphones were introduced in India at the end of 2014, the response was muted, as most of the top 10 handset brands did not have devices for the 500,000-odd segment.

That has changed, and how. Latest data from technology research firm CyberMedia Research shows two-thirds of smartphones shipped in India during January-March 2016 were enabled with 4G technology, up from 10 per cent in the same quarter a year ago.

In 2015, the sale of 4G handsets made up for one-third (33 per cent) of the total 100 million smartphones sold. Industry analysts project the sale of 4G handsets to cross 100 million in 2016.

In 2012, when the transition towards LTE technology took place in the US, 35 per cent of smartphones sold in that country were 4G-enabled. In 2014, China’s 4G smartphone sales stood at 33 per cent.

According to analysts from CyberMedia Research and Counterpoint Research, a growing buzz over launches and expansion of next generation telecom services are the major drivers for 4G handset sales, even though a pan-India roll-out of LTE technology is some time away. The entry of new players like Le Eco, Vivo and One Plus with 4G handsets at affordable prices has also provided easy choices to smartphone users.

The result is the adoption of the LTE technology is faster than the transition from 2G to 3G. “It took nearly two years for 3G smartphones to reach one-third of total sales,” said Tarun Pathak, senior analyst, Counterpoint Research. Analysts predict 3G handset technology will be phased out sooner than 2G.

“The shift from 3G to 4G has been much faster than the move from 2G to 3G. Though there will be 3G users who will form an important consumer base, there will be users who will skip 3G altogether and move to 4G network,” said Shubhajit Sen, chief marketing officer, Micromax Informatics. Sen expects up to 75 per cent of their smartphones to be LTE-enabled by the end of 2016-17, from the current 35 per cent.

“The rising uptake of LTE shipments is inevitable now. LYF devices have played a big role in creating a buzz in the market. Affordable 4G devices have fuelled sales. In the near future, we may see a fall in the prices of 4G devices and a trend of shifting from 4G to 4G VoLTE (voice over LTE),” said Krishna Mukherjee, telecom analyst with CyberMedia Research.

Major telecom service providers, including Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and Aircel, offer 4G services. Reliance Jio is expected to roll out 4G services by the end of this year. Reliance Communications recently received a clearance to launch 4G services in 12 telecom circles.  

The speedy transition to 4G is the result of a maturing market in terms of product availability at various price segments and the growing importance of smartphones in daily life, analysts point out. LYF, a brand from Reliance Jio, has captured a 13 per cent share of the 4G handset market within two quarters and has helped device shipment numbers to grow in January-March.

At the end of 2015, three of the top 10 handset brands in the country, including Karbonn, did not have any 4G devices to offer. By May, all the top 10 brands were selling 4G devices.

Gaurav Nigam, head–product, Lava International says, contribution of 4G mobile handsets in Lava’s total mobile handset sales is currently at 33 per cent, and would increase to up to 50 per cent in 2017.

Devices other than smartphones that work on 4G networks, like datacards and tablets, have, however, struggled to make their mark in the past few quarters.

“Every emerging device brand in India prefers smartphones for potential growth reasons. We see the number of brands shipping tablets and datacards on the decline. This is leading to the fewer options for consumers,” Mukherjee said.

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