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4G Development in Latin America Is Slow, Uneven

Brazil leads with 5.3 million 4G LTE connections; Colombia is second with 1.7 million

May 14, 2015 | Mobile

Latin America’s mobile market is maturing steadily but slowly. In the process, the configuration of the space appears to be in flux as well. On the one hand, nearly every major market has surpassed 100% mobile connection penetration among the population—Mexico being the notable exception, at only 89.5% in 2015, eMarketer estimates. On the other, adoption of the mobile web and particularly 4G LTE connections is still scarce. December 2014 research by Mobidia and Ovum found that there were 5.3 million 4G mobile connections in Brazil, making it the leading market in Latin America in absolute terms.

4G LTE Mobile Connections and Penetration in Select Countries, Dec 2013 & Dec 2014

Neither Mexico nor Argentina came second in the region. Surprisingly—to some extent—that spot was occupied by Colombia, with 1.7 million 4G connections. It’s important to remember that Brazil’s population is roughly five times that of Colombia, which resulted in a higher 3.4% penetration in the latter, compared with 1.9% in the former.

eMarketer has previously reported that nearly 70% of mobile connections in Colombia will be linked to a smartphone in 2020, up from 26.9% in Q3 2014, and that the South American nation has joined the top three smartphone markets in the region, edging Argentina in absolute smartphone user terms.

Among the markets measured by Mobidia and Ovum, Mexico came dead last, with just 600,000 4G connections. Moreover, penetration stood at 0.6% of the population. Certainly, advanced mobile broadband connections are a niche market in the country.

Mobile Broadband Subscriptions in Mexico, by Service Provider and Plan Type, Sep 2014

Despite recent reforms aimed at leveling the playing field for both carriers and consumers, Mexico’s mobile broadband market remains concentrated and its mobile infrastructure lagging. While Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones (IFT), Mexico’s telecom regulator, found that América Móvil’s Telcel held a 69.0% share of total mobile connections—including basic and advanced mobile devices—in the country in September 2014, it controlled 85.0% of an estimated 53.1 million mobile broadband subscriptions—including prepaid and postpaid plans linked to mobile phones and modems.

Other sources confirm that top-notch mobile networks in Latin America are slim. According to Cisco Systems, there were only 8.9 million 4G connections in Latin America last year, representing 1.2% of all mobile connections in the region. By comparison, infrastructure deployments and consumer adoption of 4G were well on their way in Asia-Pacific and North America, with connections reaching 203.4 million and 169.1 million, respectively.

4G Mobile Connections and Penetration Worldwide, by Region, 2014 & 2019 (millions and % of total mobile connections)

Latin America should indeed see a significant improvement in the years to come, hitting 211.9 million 4G connections in 2019. That figure, however, means the region will be the smallest long-term evolution (LTE) continental market in a worldwide market expected to reach almost 3 billion connections that year.

As for web-enabled mobile devices, eMarketer estimates there will be 159.1 million smartphone users and 92.3 million tablet users in Latin America in 2015. By 2019, the last year in our forecast period, those audiences will reach 247.1 million and 144.0 million, respectively.

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