Australia's 4G networks deliver the fastest download speeds in the world, but patchy coverage means users only experience those speeds 58 per cent of the time.
Australia's top spot in the global ranking of 4G download speeds comes from the State of LTE 2014 report by British firm OpenSignal, which sources data from its Android and iPhone apps installed on the devices of 6 million 4G users worldwide.
According to the report, Australians experienced 4G download speeds of 24.5 megabits per second (Mbps) on average, slightly ahead of 4G networks in Italy, Brazil and Hong Kong, which delivered speeds of 21 to 22 Mbps.
Over the past three years carriers around the world have upgraded 3G networks to the newer Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard, often called 4G, to meet growing data demands on mobile networks from smartphones and tablets. Faster download speeds are a prime reason for subscribing to a 4G service, however in some markets carriers simply make it available when a user has a 4G-capable device.
Telstra put Australia on the 4G map with the launch of its network September 2011, followed by Optus and Vodafone. The report said there are about 4.5 million 4G subscribers in Australia. Other sources put that figure in the vicinity of 7 million.
Average download speeds were based on what OpenSignal users saw on the 4G networks of Telstra and Optus, which delivered speeds of 24 Mbps and 19 Mbps respectively. Telstra had the second-fastest 4G network in the world, behind Brazil's Claro, which delivered 28 Mbps.
Vodafone, which currently offers a blisteringly fast 33 Mbps in Sydney, was excluded because OpenSignal's Vodafone users were only in Sydney and Melbourne, said OpenSignal community manager Samuel Johnston.
Australia climbed from fifth spot in OpenSignal's 2013 report, with a 42 per cent improvement on the average 4G download speed of 17.3 Mbps a year ago.
Other high-ranking countries included Denmark, Canada, Sweden and South Korea, which had average speeds of 18 to 20.1 Mbps, while 4G networks in Britain and France delivered 17.3 Mbps on average.
The slower 4G networks were in Germany, Mexico, Russia and Japan, where speeds topped out at 13.6 Mbps, but these were still ahead of the US and the Philippines, where networks delivered 6.5 and 5.3 Mbps respectively.
But speed is only one indicator of 4G quality. Coverage is the other big factor and on that measure Australia is lagging, according the report, which found Australian users were only in a 4G coverage area 58 per cent of the time, meaning they likely fell back to 3G speeds. In Sydney and Melbourne, Telstra's 3G speeds are about 5 Mbps.
To calculate time on a 4G network, the OpenSignal app performs a background check to determine whether there is no signal or a 2G, 3G or 4G signal.
Australia ranked ninth in the world on this metric, well behind front-runner South Korea, where users were on a 4G network – with download speeds close to Australia – 91 per cent of the time, followed by Sweden where users were on a 4G network 88 per cent of the time.
But Australia's rise to the top could be short-lived. As OpenSignal noted, download speeds slow as more users pile on to a network, which could explain why countries that had the fastest download speeds in last year's report tumbled this year.
In 2013, the fastest 4G networks were in Sweden, which offered 22 Mbps, followed closely by Hong Kong, Canada, Denmark, Australia and South Korea.
South Korea's speeds increased from 16 Mbps to 18 Mbps this year, with those speeds available 91 per cent of the time; it's likely the best overall market for 4G.
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