Monday 15 August 2022

Colombians Pin Their Hopes on 5G Due to Lacklustre 4G Experience

Despite the harsh impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country’s population and economy, Colombia’s telecom sector has been recovering due to positive performances in the fixed-line broadband, mobile broadband, and mobile voice and data markets.

Colombia’s fixed-line penetration remained stable by the end of 2020, though began to increase into 2021 as a result of the particular demands on households resulting from government measures associated with addressing the pandemic. However, at less than 15% it is well below the Latin American average. The mobile market, by contrast, reached a penetration rate of 136% (an increase of over three percentage points on 2019) and managed to keep the same upward growth trajectory that it has sustained over the last ten years. The fixed-line broadband market also expanded, with the number of subscribers increasing 11.4%, and with revenue increasing 9.9% thanks to increased data usage as many customers were forced to work or study from home during the year.

The mobile broadband market was the standout performer in 2020, with a 13% increase in the number of subscribers year-on-year, albeit the penetration rate is relatively low compared to other Latin American countries. Most significant of all was the surge in mobile broadband traffic — a 51% increase over the previous year — which was again a reflection of the strict lockdowns that Colombians had to endure for much of 2020.

Market leader Claro continued to expand its dominance of the mobile broadband market, increasing its share over the last decade by 10% to reach 54% at the start of 2021. Tigo, conversely, has seen its share halved over the same period of time, yet its subscriber base has still managed to grow on the back of a strong overall market. Tigo also suffered the most from Colombia’s imposed lockdowns in 2020, severely impacting its retail sales (a 20% decline in revenue) with nearly half of its stores being forced to close.

There are 4 networks in the country: Claro (formely Comcel), Movistar, Tigo Une (Tigo merged with UNE) and newcomer WOM. The three major operators share almost 90% of the market, led by Claro with about the half and followed by Movistar and Tigo with about 20% each.

2G and 3G is on 850 MHz on Claro and Movistar and 1900 MHz on all three majors. 4G/LTE started 2013/4 on 2600 MHz (B7) on Claro and Tigo and 1700 MHz (AWS/B4) on Movistar and Tigo and reaches already most of the population. WOM started as a 4G/LTE network only on 1700 MHz (B4) and roam on other networks for 2G/3G.

The most recent Open Signal report found Tigo to be the best performing operator in most of their categories. 

While Colombia’s Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications (MinTIC) has not yet scheduled an auction of 5G spectrum , in November the regulator announced plans for public consultation on increasing spectrum caps for the frequencies below 3 GHz — up to 50 MHz in the frequency range below 1 GHz and to 95 MHz in the 1710MHz-2690MHz range. The regulator is also considering applying an 80 MHz spectrum cap for the 3300MHz-3700MHz frequencies and intends to make all 400 MHz in this range available for 5G services. Earlier this year, in October, MinTIC renewed Claro and Movistar’s 1900 MHz spectrum licenses, while requiring the operators to update their technology and improve their coverage and quality of services.

In terms of 4G download speeds, Opensignal users on Tigo experienced the fastest average download speeds of 18.7 Mbps. Movistar and Tigo users saw declines in average 4G download speeds, of 0.5 and 2.1 Mbps respectively, while Claro users observed an increase of 1 Mbps. In addition, OpenSignal users on WOM networks enjoyed average 4G download speeds of 14.5 Mbps, which led to a statistical tie with Claro for second place. These changes resulted in Tigo’s lead over second-placed competitors decrease from 6.9 to around four Mbps.

In 2013 Claro merged with Comcel, dropping the name Comcel. They are now the market leaders in Colombia with the best nationwide coverage and a 48% market share. 4G/LTE on 2600 MHz (Band 7) is available for prepaid in about 200 towns and 28 capitals served by its network.

In May 2022, Claro Colombia announced its intention to switch off all 2G services by December 2022 in order to re-farm more spectrum for 4G and for a possible 5G launch.

In 2014 the merger of the two smallest networks in Colombia UNE and Tigo was finalised. The new joined network is marketed mostly under the name of Tigo. They remain the smallest major network in the country with slightly less coverage and 4G/LTE is available for prepaid on 1700 MHz (Band 4).

Tigo wins all but one of the Open Signal awards outright. The only exception is 4G Coverage Experience, which Claro successfully defends and claims outright for the fifth time in a row. Tigo increased its lead over its competitors in Upload Speed Experience and 4G Availability categories, but its lead in Download Speed Experience over Claro declined. 

In May 2021 Millicom International Cellular (MIC) announced that its Tigo Colombia subsidiary will become the first operator in Latin America to deploy Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) architecture. The rollout will be carried out in partnership with Parallel Wireless and deliver 4G service coverage at 362 rural sites. 

Telefónica acquired the former state-owned Colombia Telecomunicaciones in 2006 and sells it under its brand name of Movistar. It's now the 2nd operator in the country giving good coverage and speed. 4G/LTE has started in 5 main cities – Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla and Bucaramanga on 1700 MHz (Band 4) and 77 municipalities. 

WOM announced in August 2021 that it signed up one million subscribers since it launched in April 2021. The operator attracted new customers by offering plans, which undercut its competitors’ prices by 40%. With a new aggressive player in the market, managing subscriber churn will become an even greater challenge for the established mobile operators in Colombia. Maintaining high quality of mobile network experience will remain crucial to retain existing customers and attract new ones. 

DirecTV Colombia – a subsidiary of US telecoms giant AT&T – has reportedly switched on a fixed-wireless 5G service in selected parts of Bogota. According to Tecno Movida, the network has gone live in Kenedy and Engativa, and utilises equipment from Ericsson, Qualcomm and Gemtek. The network, which includes a cloud native 5G core and uses Massive MIMO technology, is capable of supporting download speeds of up to 100Mbps.

According to TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database, satellite pay-TV provider DirecTV Colombia won a 4G concession in June 2013, securing 2×15MHz of FDD-LTE spectrum and a 40MHz block of TD-LTE spectrum in the 2600MHz band. The operator went on to launch its LTE-based 4G wireless broadband service in July 2014 and served 187,322 4G subscribers as of 31 December 2019.

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