When Will 4G Take Off in Latin America? The short answer is: Not very soon. While smartphone adoption is well on its way in Latin America—eMarketer estimates the number of smartphone users in the region will rise 21.0% in 2015 to reach 152.6 million, or 37.5% of mobile phone users—top-notch 4G infrastructure is still scarce.
Furthermore, the cost of mobile phones that can tap into those very thin LTE networks is prohibitive for large sections of the population.
While the ranks of smartphone users in the region will continue to grow at double-digit rates through 2017, consumers there are largely opting for affordable 3G devices. According to Ovum and 4G Americas data, 4G LTE penetration in Latin America stood at a mere 1.7% of all mobile connections in the region in December 2014. By comparison, 40.3% of mobile connections in North America were equipped with 4G LTE capabilities.
The sources estimated that there would be 28 million 4G LTE connections in Latin America in 2015—4% of the overall 759 million mobile connections across the region. At 51% share, GSM technology (2G) was expected to be the biggest contributor one last time, ahead of HSPA (3G), which was forecast to have 334 million connections and a 44% slice of the mobile pie this year.
2G connections are expected to lose plenty of ground in Latin America in the coming years—dropping to a 17% market share by 2019—as 3G rises to the top. Ovum and 4G Americas predicted 3G connections would total 504 million in the region, or 60% of total mobile connections, in 2019.
4G connection growth in absolute terms is only expected to outpace that of 3G connections beginning in 2018, when annual additions to each will total 46 million and 39 million, respectively. But even in 2019, just 23% of mobile connections will be equipped with the fastest type available today. These estimates, of course, do not consider the potential impact of the (unlikely before 2020) appearance of fifth-generation (5G) networks, for which “wireless operators have begun wondering what to include,” as The Economist put it.
eMarketer predicts the number of smartphone users in Latin America will total 219.9 million in 2018. Over half of those users will live in Brazil and Mexico. Colombia and Chile, perhaps the two most advanced mobile markets in the region relative to their populations, will be home to about 30 million smartphone users combined that year.