Mobile Data – The Price of Speed

Written By Gerard Kearney, Telecoms Consultant and Dr. Frederik Lipfert, Chief Executive Officer - Speedcheck

When it comes to mobile data, we feel the need for speed and are generally willing to pay a premium for it. And should we get more bang for our buck with excellent data performance, then that is a welcome bonus.

But what if you suddenly discover consumers in a neighbouring country are paying a fraction of the price for their mobile broadband data that you pay yet still enjoy the same speed? Worse still, what if they are paying far less than you and yet are benefiting from a much higher speed performance?

In such cases, it is no use turning to your national retail pricing laws or consumer watchdog to complain since what your international neighbours are paying is not covered by your national laws. Besides, you knew what your mobile data plan offered before you signed the contract, and now you are simply receiving the service you signed up for.

In this insightful investigation by Speedcheck, we analysed the mobile broadband speed experienced by the users of our service in 89 countries across five continents and compared them against the prices consumers are paying for data in each country.

We reflected the results in Speedcheck  new Speed-Price Index (SPI) international ranking – a strong indicator of the value-for-money that consumers are getting for their mobile data when compared internationally.

The index increases as the speed increases and/or as the cost of data reduces. Thus, the higher the index the more value for money the mobile user enjoys.

Speedcheck also look at the possible root causes for the often breath-taking disparity in mobile data prices between countries, and offer clues as to what could be behind the excessive charges in the more expensive places.

Finally, the results could serve to lobby both governments and mobile telco operators to consider removing the artificial barriers that prevent operators from providing affordable mobile data to consumers worldwide, but without compromising performance.

 

An Overview Of Speedcheck Mobile Data Analysis Methodology

Speedcheck analysed the broadband speed experienced and measured by our mobile (cellular) users in their home countries and compared it with the price customers typically pay for data in those countries.

The results are categorised regionally by continent and appear in the following order in this report:

Critical comparisons between speed (Mbps) and price ($/GB) from 89 countries were analysed and converted into our unique Speed-Price Index (SPI) expressed in Mbps/$/GB. This service metric represents the most significant one that consumers depend on once connected to a network.

The various prices per GB across all 89 countries are sourced from Cable.co.uk’s1 worldwide mobile data price comparison for 2021 . For this present study, Speedcheck has adjusted these prices with the Purchasing Power Index (PPI) for each country2 which delivers a far more realistic international pricing comparison.

For each region, researcher include a table listing the top SPI-ranked countries in the region. In addition, each table incorporates the following per-country metrics: download speed as measured by Speedcheck users, our regional SPI ranking of the country, and, for comparison, the global SPI ranking as well.

To give an indication of the scale of the global SPI itself, the highest SPI in the world from study comes out at 82.3. The second highest is 44.2. The global average SPI is 6.6 while the global median is 2.3. This disparity is accounted for by only 15 countries globally having an SPI of greater than 10, with an average SPI value of 25.3 among them.

Finally, the impact that the PPI-adjusted prices have on the SPI values and ranking is significant. This is because many countries on the list have a very low PPI compared with the reference country, the United States, which has a PPI of 100.

For example, with a PPI of just 11.5 compared with the United States, Vietnam drops 31 places on the global SPI ranking when its average mobile data price is adjusted with its national PPI.

All Countries Analysed by Speedcheck for Value-For-Money Mobile Broadband Data
Country
Download Speed [Mbps]
Average Price Per GB [$US]
Speed-Price Index (SPI) [Mbps/$/GB]
SPI Ranking (Global)
Israel
7.12
$0.09
82.3
1
Italy
18.2
$0.41
44.2
2
Fiji
22.25
$0.51
43.4
3
Denmark
28.68
$0.90
31.8
4
France
17.97
$0.57
31.6
5
Australia
22.4
$0.88
25.5
6
Finland
28.13
$1.26
22.3
7
Austria
26.98
$1.34
20.1
8
Russia
8.67
$0.67
13
9
Sweden
21.42
$1.66
12.9
10
Lithuania
30.32
$2.61
11.6
11
Poland
14.67
$1.30
11.3
12
The Netherlands
36.76
$3.54
10.4
13
Kuwait
9.62
$0.95
10.1
14
Turkey
15.3
$1.59
9.6
15
Estonia
23.13
$2.64
8.8
16
Singapore
7.98
$0.92
8.6
17
Romania
22.57
$2.66
8.5
18
Switzerland
43
$5.22
8.2
19
United Kingdom
16.99
$2.10
8.1
20
Spain
15.69
$2.04
7.7
21
South Korea
55.7
$7.35
7.6
22
Bulgaria
46.63
$6.49
7.2
23
Saudi Arabia
12.55
$1.87
6.7
24
Croatia
34.72
$5.76
6
25
Ireland
9.12
$1.56
5.9
26
Germany
21.88
$3.87
5.7
27
Iraq
19.66
$3.52
5.6
28
Norway
28.18
$5.27
5.3
29
Hungary
18.89
$3.56
5.3
30
United States
16.99
$3.33
5.1
31
Hong Kong
11.41
$2.40
4.8
32
Belgium
26.95
$6.56
4.1
33
Kazakhstan
5.75
$1.44
4
34
Japan
21.12
$5.31
4
35
Belarus
4.78
$1.27
3.8
36
Vietnam
15.83
$4.26
3.7
37
Serbia
18.5
$5.39
3.4
38
Latvia
20.89
$7.28
2.9
39
Malaysia
5.87
$2.12
2.8
40
Chile
2.97
$1.08
2.7
41
Boznia and Herzegovina
16.71
$6.26
2.7
42
Slovakia
18.06
$6.83
2.6
43
Portugal
19.37
$7.53
2.6
44
Argentina
7.43
$3.16
2.3
45
Puerto Rico
15.49
$6.90
2.2
46
Brazil
9.01
$4.04
2.2
47
Tunisia
13.14
$5.92
2.2
48
Jordan
9.75
$4.43
2.2
49
Taiwan
19.85
$9.45
2.1
50
Ukraine
9.58
$4.57
2.1
51
Morocco
16.11
$7.93
2
52
Lebanon
24.04
$11.85
2
53
Canada
15.67
$7.73
2
54
Libya
5.47
$2.85
1.9
55
Czech Republic
25.37
$14.21
1.8
56
New Zealand
17.97
$10.69
1.7
57
Egypt
9.5
$5.75
1.7
58
Guatemala
15.17
$9.37
1.6
59
Algeria
4.4
$2.73
1.6
60
Thailand
6.27
$4.02
1.6
61
Indonesia
3.45
$2.50
1.4
62
Paraguay
17.11
$12.59
1.4
63
Greece
24.53
$18.50
1.3
64
Ecuador
7.46
$6.31
1.2
65
Costa Rica
8.13
$7.76
1
66
United Arab Emirates
8.42
$8.63
1
67
Dominican Rep.
7.58
$8.07
0.9
68
Honduras
5.32
$5.72
0.9
69
Iran
9.17
$9.87
0.9
70
South Africa
11.18
$13.76
0.8
71
Bangladesh
3.02
$4.30
0.7
72
Mexico
9.35
$13.56
0.7
73
Panama
9.67
$16.45
0.6
74
India
3.69
$6.30
0.6
75
Nigeria
5.83
$10.60
0.5
76
El Salvador
5.95
$10.90
0.5
77
Philippines
5.32
$11.72
0.5
78
Pakistan
2.95
$6.78
0.4
79
Colombia
5.17
$12.33
0.4
80
Uzbekistan
1.54
$3.80
0.4
81
Afghanistan
1.76
$4.62
0.4
82
Sudan
1.08
$5.51
0.2
83
Cambodia
2.37
$13.17
0.2
84
Peru
1.03
$6.32
0.2
85
Kenya
4.34
$35.16
0.1
86
Timor-Leste
1.65
$22.88
0.1
87
Syria
3.1
$110.00
0
88
Niger
0.24
$28.89
0
89

The Americas

With a Speed-Price Index (SPI) value of 5.1, the United States is ranked first place in this region. Nevertheless, it is ranked only 31 globally, indicating that the value for money U.S. consumers are getting for their mobile data is well below par when compared with the rest of the world.

Overall, many countries in the Americas fare rather poorly with 12 out of the 17 analysed assigned a very low SPI value of just 2.0 or less. Contrast this with the country with the top SPI in the world of 82.3, namely Israel.

Countries In The Americas Analysed by Speedcheck for Value-For-Money Mobile Broadband Data
Country
Download Speed [Mbps]
Average Price Per GB [$US]
Speed-Price Index (SPI) [Mbps/$/GB]
SPI Ranking (Regional)
SPI Ranking (Global)
United States
16.99
$3.33
5.1
1
31
Chile
2.97
$1.08
2.7
2
41
Argentina
7.43
$3.16
2.3
3
45
Puerto Rico
15.49
$6.90
2.2
4
46
Brazil
9.01
$4.04
2.2
5
47
Canada
15.67
$7.73
2
6
54
Guatemala
15.17
$9.37
1.6
7
59
Paraguay
17.11
$12.59
1.4
8
63
Ecuador
7.46
$6.31
1.2
9
65
Costa Rica
8.13
$7.76
1
10
66
Dominican Rep.
7.58
$8.07
0.9
11
68
Honduras
5.32
$5.72
0.9
12
69
Mexico
9.35
$13.56
0.7
13
73
Panama
9.67
$16.45
0.6
14
74
El Salvador
5.95
$10.90
0.5
15
77
Colombia
5.17
$12.33
0.4
16
80
Peru
1.03
$6.32
0.2
17
85

15 of the 17 countries in the region find themselves at or below the world median SPI value of 2.3, while all 17 fall well below the global average of 6.6. In fact, most of them come near the bottom of the global SPI ranking table.

Probably most surprising of all is Canada, with a disappointingly low SPI of just 2. It is ranked 6th place regionally and only 54th in the world. This is primarily due to the considerable price Canadian consumers must pay for their mobile data, at $7.73/GB(PPI-adjusted). In the region, Chile, Argentina, Puerto Rico and Brazil, as well as the U.S., all beat Canada for better value for money.

Looking at it from a purely speed metric only, Paraguay, with an average speed of 17.11 Mbps, beats the United States with 16.99 Mbps. But what is more concerning is the overall average speed for the Americas is considerably lower than that of Europe where, as we shall see in the next section, consumers in Bulgaria, Switzerland and The Netherlands are enjoying speeds of 46.63, 43 and 36.76 Mbps, respectively.

This combination of relatively slow speeds coupled with high prices keeps the countries of the Americas generally low on the global SPI ranking table.

Europe

With a Speed-Price Index (SPI) of 44.2, Italy comes out as the clear winner in the whole of Europe for the value for money its mobile data customers are experiencing. Denmark comes in second place with an SPI of 31.8, followed very closely by France with 31.6.

Top 18 Out Of 28 European Countries Analysed by Speedcheck for Value-For-Money Mobile Broadband Data
Country
Download Speed [Mbps]
Average Price Per GB [$US]
Speed-Price Index (SPI) [Mbps/$/GB]
SPI Ranking (Regional)
SPI Ranking (Global)
Italy
18.2
$0.41
44.2
1
2
Denmark
28.68
$0.90
31.8
2
4
France
17.97
$0.57
31.6
3
5
Finland
28.13
$1.26
22.3
4
7
Austria
26.98
$1.34
20.1
5
8
Sweden
21.42
$1.66
12.9
6
10
Lithuania
30.32
$2.61
11.6
7
11
Poland
14.67
$1.30
11.3
8
12
The Netherlands
36.76
$3.54
10.4
9
13
Estonia
23.13
$2.64
8.8
10
16
Romania
22.57
$2.66
8.5
11
18
Switzerland
43
$5.22
8.2
12
19
United Kingdom
16.99
$2.10
8.1
13
20
Spain
15.69
$2.04
7.7
14
21
Bulgaria
46.63
$6.49
7.2
15
23
Croatia
34.72
$5.76
6
16
25
Ireland
9.12
$1.56
5.9
17
26
Germany
21.88
$3.87
5.7
18
27

What makes this study especially remarkable is how it exposes the significant disparity between the top-ranking five countries in Europe and the rest of the European field.

While Finland and Austria appear in fourth and fifth places with good SPI values of 22.3 and 20.1 respectively, there is a significant gap between Austria and its European neighbours.

Sweden, in sixth place, has an SPI of 12.9, followed by Lithuania with 11.6 and Poland with 11.3.

When contrasted with the top three, some of the most prosperous European countries rank surprisingly and disappointingly low in the table.

The Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Spain appear in 9th, 12th, 13th and 14th places with SPIs of a paltry 10.4, 8.2, 8.1 and 7.7, respectively.

But possibly the most disappointing of all is Germany, ranked only 18th place with an SPI of just 5.7, which is even below the global average SPI figure of 6.6. Comparing it outside the region, Iraq, with an SPI of 5.6, has similar metrics to Germany.

This significant disparity is primarily due to the relatively high retail price German consumers pay for their mobile broadband data, at $3.87/GB (PPI-adjusted). That is relatively high compared with some of its neighbours, such as Italy where consumers pay only $0.41/GB.

Granted, Germany’s average speed is 20% higher than Italy’s. Nevertheless, the price Italian consumers pay is just a little over 10% of what German consumers are paying.

Moreover, it is especially significant that mobile operators in Denmark manage to provide 31% higher speed on average to their customers compared with German operators, but at only 23% of the cost that German consumers are paying. Similarly, Finland has a significantly higher speed than Germany, but Finish consumers pay a third of the price that German consumers are paying.

Also noteworthy is the fact that Norway, Hungary, Belgium and Portugal are conspicuous by their absence from the top 20.

Notwithstanding, Europe is very well represented in the global SPI table, with 20 of the top 30 countries of the world located in Europe.

When looking at purely speed only, Bulgaria, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Croatia all deserve a special mention with impressive speeds of 46.63, 43, 36.76, and 34.72 Mbps, respectively, which Speedcheck ranks 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th in the world for speed alone. In fact, of the top 16 countries in the world for speed, 14 are European.

In conclusion, while Italy does offer the best value for money for mobile speed in Europe, based on its SPI value alone, nevertheless, because of Denmark’s relatively high speed at a relatively low price, it comes out on top as the best value and quality for money in Europe.

Asia And Oceania

There are several reasons why the Asia and Oceania region particularly stands out in Speedcheck’s international study. Not only has it a respectable four countries represented in the top 22 countries in our global SPI ranking, but the island of Fiji also comes in at an incredible 3rd place in the world ranking with an SPI of 43.4. And it is ranked first in the region.

What is also particularly noteworthy is that South Korean consumers enjoy the highest mobile speed in the world with 55.7 Mbps as measured by Speedcheck’s user base. However, the significantly high price that consumers pay for their mobile data, $7.35/GB (PPI-adjusted), greatly diminishes South Korea’s corresponding SPI value. Contrast that high price against the $0.51/GB, $0.88/GB and $0.92/GB consumers in Fiji, Australia and Singapore respectively pay for their mobile data.

Top 16 Of 20 Countries in Asia and Oceania Analysed by Speedcheck for Value-For-Money Mobile Broadband Data
Country
Download Speed [Mbps]
Average Price Per GB [$US]
Speed-Price Index (SPI) [Mbps/$/GB]
SPI Ranking (Regional)
SPI Ranking (Global)
Fiji
22.25
$0.51
43.4
1
3
Australia
22.4
$0.88
25.5
2
6
Singapore
7.98
$0.92
8.6
3
17
South Korea
55.7
$7.35
7.6
4
22
Hong Kong
11.41
$2.40
4.8
5
32
Japan
21.12
$5.31
4
6
35
Vietnam
15.83
$4.26
3.7
7
37
Malaysia
5.87
$2.12
2.8
8
40
Taiwan
19.85
$9.45
2.1
9
50
New Zealand
17.97
$10.69
1.7
10
57
Thailand
6.27
$4.02
1.6
11
61
Indonesia
3.45
$2.50
1.4
12
62
Iran
9.17
$9.87
0.9
13
70
Bangladesh
3.02
$4.30
0.7
14
72
India
3.69
$6.30
0.6
15
75
Philippines
5.32
$11.72
0.5
16
78

What also stands out is the disparity between the top two countries, namely, Fiji and Australia, with SPIs of 43.4 and 25.5, respectively, and the rest of the region. Singapore appears in 3rd place with a relatively poor SPI of 8.6, followed by South Korea with 7.6.

What is also disappointing is that Hong Kong and Japan have low SPI values of 4.8 and 4.0, while Taiwan and New Zealand all have extremely poor SPIs of 2.1 and 1.7, respectively.

This is due to the relatively poor speed some countries experience, such as Hong Kong (11.41 Mbps), or else the remarkably high price consumers must pay, for example, Taiwan, New Zealand and Japan. For example, although consumers in New Zealand enjoy a respectable 17.97 Mbps they must pay a whopping $10.69/GB for the pleasure.

Finally, comparing globally, eight countries in the region – half of those analysed – appear in the bottom half of the global SPI table. With Fiji and Australia appearing in 3rd and 6th positions globally, it means that countries within the Asia and Oceania region exhibit some of the greatest disparity between the highest and lowest SPIs in any region of the world, with the possible exception of the Middle East.

The Middle East

In this Speed-Price Index (SPI) study by Speedcheck, the Middle East region stands out globally for several reasons. The principal one is that it has the country with the highest SPI worldwide, namely, Israel, with a value of 82.3.

The main reason why Israel comes out on top is the inordinately low price consumers pay for their mobile data there, an almost insignificant $0.09/GB on average. Contrast that with another country in the same region which, among the countries analysed by Speedcheck, has the highest cost for mobile data in the world, namely, Syria. There, consumers pay an astronomical $110/GB (all prices are PPI-adjusted).

However, this data deserves a little further analysis. First, the meagre price paid by Israeli consumers, which has driven its SPI to the top-ranked position in the world, masks the fact that the average speed the same consumers experience is relatively low on a global scale, at just 7.12 Mbps. In fact, it is the second-lowest speed in the region.

We may contrast this with Iraq, where consumers experience a speed of 19.66 Mbps and an SPI of 5.6, which is comparable with, for example, Germany, whose SPI value is 5.7.

Countries in the Middle East Analysed by Speedcheck for Value-For-Money Mobile Broadband Data
Country
Download Speed [Mbps]
Average Price Per GB [$US]
Speed-Price Index (SPI) [Mbps/$/GB]
SPI Ranking (Regional)
SPI Ranking (Global)
Israel
7.12
$0.09
82.3
1
1
Kuwait
9.62
$0.95
10.1
2
14
Turkey
15.3
$1.59
9.6
3
15
Saudi Arabia
12.55
$1.87
6.7
4
24
Iraq
19.66
$3.52
5.6
5
28
Jordan
9.75
$4.43
2.2
6
49
Lebanon
24.04
$11.85
2
7
53
Egypt
9.5
$5.75
1.7
8
58
United Arab Emirates
8.42
$8.63
1
9
67
Iran
9.17
$9.87
0.9
10
70
Syria
3.1
$110.00
0
11
88

Lebanon also deserves a special mention having the highest speed in the region with a very impressive 24.04 Mbps. However, the exceptionally high price Lebanese consumers pay for their mobile data, $11.85/GB (PPI-adjusted), considerably reduces their SPI to a very poor 2.

Overall, countries in the Middle East fare reasonably well globally, with five of the eleven countries analysed appearing in the top 28 places in the global SPI ranking. However, in common with Asia and Oceania, countries within the Middle East also exhibit some of the greatest disparity in the world between the highest SPI values and the lowest.

Commonwealth Of Independent States (CIS)

In the Speedcheck study, five countries were analysed from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and Russia comes out on top in the region with quite an impressive Speed-Price Index (SPI) of 13. Russia is also in 9th place in the global SPI ranking.

However, the result is tempered by the fact that its relatively high SPI value is mainly down to the low price consumers in Russia pay for their data, $0.67/GB, and not the average speed they experience, which is a poor 8.67 Mbps.

Countries in the CIS Analysed by Speedcheck for Value-For-Money Mobile Broadband Data
Country
Download Speed [Mbps]
Average Price Per GB [$US]
Speed-Price Index (SPI) [Mbps/$/GB]
SPI Ranking (Regional)
SPI Ranking (Global)
Russia
8.67
$0.67
13
1
9
Kazakhstan
5.75
$1.44
4
2
34
Belarus
4.78
$1.27
3.8
3
36
Ukraine
9.58
$4.57
2.1
4
51
Uzbekistan
1.54
$3.80
0.4
5
81

Ukraine has the highest speed in the region with 9.58 Mbps, but this is still very low when compared with the global leaders South Korea (55.7 Mbps), Bulgaria (46.63 Mbps) and Switzerland (43 Mbps). Added to this, consumers in Ukraine must pay $4.57/GB (PPI-adjusted) for the privilege.

On a positive note, three of the five countries studied in the region appear in the top 40% of our global SPI ranking table, which is not a bad representation.

Africa

Of the nine countries in Africa covered in this Speed-Price Index (SPI) study by Speedcheck, Tunisia comes out on top with an SPI of 2.2. Morocco is a close second with an SPI value of 2.

South Africa is ranked 5th place in the region with a disappointing SPI of 0.8. This is mainly due to the remarkably high cost of mobile data in the country, where consumers must pay a whopping $13.76/GB (PPI-adjusted).

On speed alone, Tunisia, Morocco and South Africa provide very decent speeds to their mobile customers when compared globally, with Morocco ahead in the region with 16.11 Mbps. Contrast this with, for example, Israel, where consumers experience only 7.12 Mbps. However, Israel still enjoys the highest SPI in the world because of the minuscule price Israeli consumers pay for data.

Countries in Africa Analysed by Speedcheck for Value-For-Money Mobile Broadband Data
Country
Download Speed [Mbps]
Average Price Per GB [$US]
Speed-Price Index (SPI) [Mbps/$/GB]
SPI Ranking (Regional)
SPI Ranking (Global)
Tunisia
13.14
$5.92
2.2
1
48
Morocco
16.11
$7.93
2
2
52
Libya
5.47
$2.85
1.9
3
55
Algeria
4.4
$2.73
1.6
4
60
South Africa
11.18
$13.76
0.8
5
71
Nigeria
5.83
$10.60
0.5
6
76
Sudan
1.08
$5.51
0.2
7
83
Kenya
4.34
$35.16
0.1
8
86
Niger
0.24
$28.89
0
9
89

Taking the global view, all African countries studied appear in the lower half of the global SPI ranking table. However, it must be pointed out that this is mainly due to the significant adjustment the PPI has on the price paid for data in these countries. For example, without adjusting the prices, Morocco would be in 16th place, Tunisia 24th place, and Algeria 35th place in the global SPI ranking.

That said, what the PPI does give us is a better indication of what consumers in each country are paying in reality when compared internationally using the metrics of the local cost of living and income for each country.

The Global View

In this value-for-money consumer study conducted by Speedcheck based on our user base in 89 countries worldwide, Israel gets the highest Speed-Price Index in the world with a value of 82.3. This is almost twice that of the second-place holder, namely, Italy with an SPI of 44.2.

Interestingly, Fiji comes in 3rd place in the world with a very impressive SPI of 43.4.

In the case of Israel, it bears noting that its soaring SPI is primarily due to the almost impossibly low price Israeli consumers pay for their data, at just $0.09/GB (PPI-adjusted), on average. Unfortunately, however, this great value-for-money to the customer is not matched by a very high speed, with Speedcheck users in Israel registering on average only 7.12 Mbps.

Denmark, France, Australia and Finland are in 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th places respectively. All of these, along with Fiji, and to a certain degree, Italy, enjoy relatively high speeds at relatively low cost to the consumer.

However, if we were to recalibrate the SPI to include quality as well as value for money, then the country to come out on top in the world for both value and quality would have to be Denmark, which provides 28 Mbps at just $0.90/GB to its mobile data consumers. Closely following Denmark are FinlandFijiAustraliaFrance, and then Italy.

Fiji deserves special credit for providing excellent speed and value for money on a world-class scale despite being a small remote island country in the South Pacific. The remoteness of such locations often tends to increase the cost of providing mobile networks and services locally.

SPI-Top20.jpg

The country with the highest speed in the world by Speedcheck’s ranking, namely, South Korea with 55.7 Mbps, fails to appear in the global top 20 SPI list. This is because of the high price consumers there are forced to pay for their mobile data, $7.35/GB.

SPI-Bottom20.jpg

As for the bottom 20 countries in the world, well, they hold a few surprises too. All of them have an SPI of less than 1. Contrast that with Israel’s 82.3 and Italy’s 44.2.

Perhaps many observers would not have expected to see countries like South Africa, Mexico or even India appear in the bottom 20, but there they are. The reason for this is a combination of low speeds plus low Purchasing Power Index (PPI) in those countries which conspire to drive down the value for money that mobile data consumers experience.

Now, three things especially stand out on the global stage from this study.

First, there is a vast disparity in SPI values between the more affluent countries and developing countries. This is not unexpected, especially when the very low PPIs of many developing countries inflate the true price consumers have to pay for their data, thus driving down their SPI value even further.

Second, among the more affluent developed countries of the world, there is also a considerable discrepancy between those where consumers are charged on average many times what those in other developed countries are paying for similar, or sometimes higher, speeds.

Third, among the second category above, the number of countries that are providing good value for money with an SPI value of above 10 are in a small minority – just 14 countries. Furthermore, only 24 countries have an SPI value above the global average of 6.6.

So why is there such a significant disparity in the international mobile telecommunications marketplace? Why is it even possible for a consumer in one country to be paying a high price for their mobile data, for example, in Germany, while someone in a nearby country is enjoying faster speed at a fraction of the price, for example, in Denmark?

Are consumers being ruthlessly ripped off by mobile telcos who charge what sometimes seem like predatory prices? Or could there be a more straightforward reason why this is happening? Also, do government and regulatory bodies have a responsibility to investigate this and perhaps even try to regulate prices, at least within some regions?

Why The Great Disparity In Prices?

Surveying the global landscape of the mobile telecoms industry over the past number of years, one issue stands out above all others that points to the most likely cause for the price disparity we have highlighted in this report.

More precisely, it is how mobile telcos chose to manage this one issue in their business plans, namely, the high price they have paid for their radio spectrum license awards over the past 20 years.

The price of radio spectrum auctions

It is entirely likely that many mobile operators have chosen to pass on to their customers the high prices they paid for 3G, 4G and 5G spectrum licenses since the launch 3G UMTS in the early 2000s. And it is this that has driven up the price of mobile data for the average consumer.

Some claim that many mobile telcos simply wrote off that initial high capital outlay as “sunk” investment, meaning that the telcos themselves take the hit and do not pass the cost onto their customers in the form of higher retail prices. Well, such commentators do not have very solid ground to stand on.

Mobile operators are not charities and must always have the ROI and bottom-line profit margin foremost in mind, both for the health of their companies and the satisfaction of their shareholders. And when billions upon billions of dollars have been paid by the telcos for spectrum license awards because of often poorly managed auctions, there is no argument that this has a severe impact on their business models.

What must also be noted upfront is that for those who do indeed pass the high spectrum costs onto customers, it has in effect become yet another indirect tax to mobile consumers. All because of the enormous revenues that have poured into the treasuries of national governments from the many spectrum auctions they have administered.

But the critical point we can take from our international study is that not all mobile telcos seem to have passed on those spectrum costs to their customers, at least not nearly to the same degree others have done. However, such countries, though encouraging and refreshing, are in a small minority.

This thesis is supported by the fact that the top five ranking countries in our SPI table for Europe all underwent mobile spectrum auctions over the past 20 years, some of which were admittedly managed better than others. And yet, they seem to be providing exceptional speed-price value and quality for money compared with other world-class telecoms providers in Europe.

What is also clear is that there are countries where mobile operators charge less than, for example, $1 for a GB (PPI-adjusted) of mobile data and are still managing to provide excellent speeds to the consumer. This would demonstrate that mobile telcos can provide data to consumers at very affordable prices while not compromising performance and still make a profit.

However, it is more difficult to understand how some countries manage it at all, for example, how operators in Israel can make a significant profit when the average price charged in the country is only $0.09 per GB (PPI-adjusted). However, we must remember that this is the average price in the country, and several operators do charge a lot more there. This brings us to another moot point.

Of the minority of countries where very affordable quality mobile data is available, despite the telcos having paid way over the odds for spectrum, how do we know that these same telcos are operating at a profit at all?

Moreover, is it not also entirely possible that some of them may be providing their data services at artificially low prices because of domestic market forces, for example, the presence of price disrupters in the market? Thus, the incumbent operators may be deliberately keeping their prices low as a temporary measure to ward off competition. And, if this is the case, it is also quite possible we could see some of them sadly going bankrupt in the future.

As for getting a measure of how burdensome the spectrum prices will have been to the mobile telcos’ finances, and therefore their business plans, let’s look at a few specific examples.

Italy provides a reasonable speed but at a fraction of the cost of its neighbour Germany. We note that the 3G UMTS auctions in Germany in the early 2000s took the art of unbridled auction frenzy to a new level, after which the German government famously ended up with a windfall of €51 billion from the 3G radio spectrum licenses alone. And that was some twenty years ago.

However, Italy did not escape the frenetic 3G auction bidding either, with even some partners in the mobile industry falling out over the excessive prices some of them were bidding during the frenetic auctions there. Some of the same mistakes were repeated during the 4G spectrum auctions in the early 2010s and again with the more recent 5G auctions. By October 2018, largely due to the way Italy’s communications regulator structured the 5G auction there, Italian mobile operators ended up overbidding and paying an enormous $6.5 billion for 5G spectrum3. When broken down to price paid per MHz per head of population, Italy yet again ended up paying a lot more for 5G than many of its neighbours.

But why is Italy able to provide mobile data at $0.49/GB, yet German consumers have to pay $3.87?

Surely the answer must be, at least in part, that the German mobile telcos have paid such exorbitant fees for their radio spectrum licenses since the early 3G license auctions they decided to pass a substantial part of that financial burden on to their customers.

Meanwhile, telcos in Italy have broadly chosen not to do so, or at least not to the same degree, resulting in Italy providing almost seven times the speed-price value-for-money as Germany does to its customers. Yes, Germany provides 37% higher speed than Italy, on average. But at what price? At almost ten times the price!

From a spectrum report produced by the GSM Association (GSMA) in 2017, there is strong evidence that France, Switzerland and Croatia all paid similar fees per capita for 4G coverage spectrum to what was paid in Germany. Yet our study shows they all have higher SPIs values than Germany, with France significantly so4. But what is even more interesting is the same report indicates that Austria, The Netherlands and Poland all paid significantly more than Germany per capita for 4G coverage spectrum. Yet their SPIs are higher than Germany’s, with Austria’s significantly so.

In conclusion, it would appear that many mobile operators are passing on to the consumer the excessively high prices they paid for radio spectrum in what were often poorly managed auctions.

However, from the several notable exceptions to this – such as Italy, France, Austria, The Netherlands and a few others – though they are in the minority, nevertheless they demonstrate that consumers do not have to shoulder the heavy burden of the artificially high auction prices telcos were forced to pay for their spectrum licenses.

We can only hope that some of these national telcos are not deliberately running at a loss because of domestic market forces and that they do not run into major financial difficulty as businesses in the future.

Finally, it ought to be noted that these high spectrum fees have also more than likely left some mobile telcos strapped for cash and in debt, and who may now be struggling to come up with the additional capital needed to invest in the building out of their 5G network infrastructure and services.

Could this be a reason why some operators are slower to build their 5G networks than others, despite having contractual clauses in their licenses committing them to specific rollout targets?

Conclusion

National governments and telecommunications regulators worldwide have had three opportunities over the past 20 years to get the spectrum auctions right for the government, right for the mobile telcos, and, above all, right for the consumer of essential mobile services. And yet, it seems few lessons have been learned from past mistakes.

Instead of focusing on allowing mobile network operators to grow and advance their network infrastructure to provide near-ubiquitous quality data connectivity to consumers, which is an essential backbone of the digital economy, unfortunately, many governments still seem fixated on trying to artificially maximise their revenues while displaying a lack of genuine concern for the fate of the mobile telcos and the consumer.

This has forced mobile telcos to pay exorbitant prices to use what is essentially a national resource that should be made readily available to every citizen. And this cost is undoubtedly being passed on by too many telcos to the consumer as essentially just another government value-added tax.

Consumers gladly pay a reasonable fee for clean water to be delivered to our homes. We do not expect governments to force water companies to pay billions of dollars for rainfall, only to pass that cost onto us! There would be a national uproar if such a thing were to happen.

So why should it be any different for another national resource, radio spectrum, which has now become an essential part of daily life and the furtherance of the digital economy in the form of mobile telecommunications? So, where is the uproar with this?

It is still not too late for national governments to review how they assign the national resource of radio spectrum to mobile telcos, even for the remaining 5G spectrum blocks that have yet to be awarded, and certainly for 6G going forward.

For example, one suggestion might be to use a combination of allocating reasonable fixed prices for blocks of spectrum to be sold to mobile operators based on the so-called “beauty contest” method. In this case, each company would submit its best tender to buy the spectrum resource at the fixed fee.

The spectrum fee would serve several purposes. First, it would eliminate unsuitable or speculative applicants who would never qualify for a mobile network license anyway while also promoting quality competition among the real key players. And second, it would assist in the smooth running of the spectrum allocation process.

The fee should be capped at a price that the operator can reasonably take on as a sunk capital investment or else readily recoup by passing on a small marginal cost to the consumer. It would therefore be up to the economists to determine the optimal market price for such spectrum. And if that should yet again turn out to be in the multiple billions of dollars, then, again, there is something seriously wrong. The market cannot sustain that level of overhead.

This proposed method also leaves the operator with more reserve capital funds to build out their future 5G and 6G network infrastructures and services for the benefit of the consumer.

With this, governments still get their moderate revenue, while operators do not end up saddled with enormous debt or strapped for cash for decades to come that shackles them from rolling out 5G or 6G services promptly. Also, consumers would not need to be unfairly burdened with exorbitant indirect “taxes”.

Whatever the way forward is, what is clear is government regulators must learn from the past. They must avoid policies that artificially inflate the price of radio spectrum for mobile telcos. They should also do away with measures that serve only to encourage unbridled and frenetic bidding sprees for blocks of spectrum that are deliberately released piecemeal as if they are as scarce as hen’s teeth when that is not the case.

Finally, to those mobile operators who do provide great value for money to data consumers despite the poorly managed auctions that have taken place in the past, we salute you. We mark you out as examples that others should be encouraged to follow. Special mention in this regard must go to Denmark, Finland and Australia.

But possibly the most outstanding example in this regard worldwide is a small island in the South Pacific where you can get 22.25 Mbps at only $0.51/GB. In Fiji, at least, the mobile customer still appears to be king.

Sources

1 https://www.cable.co.uk/mobiles/worldwide-data-pricing/ Mobile data prices are the average within each country for consumer plans, expressed in $/GB.
2 Purchasing Power Index (PPI) reflects the cost of living coupled with the typical income in a country. It is normalised against a reference country, which here is the United States and the U.S. dollar. Our primary source for this index is https://www.worlddata.info, and our secondary source is https://www.numbeo.com.
3 https://www.mobileworldlive.com/featured-content/top-three/italian-regulator-defends-5g.auction/ 11 Oct., 2018.
4 GSMA Spectrum: “Effective Spectrum Pricing In Europe: Policies to support better quality and a more affordable mobile services”, Sept., 2017, Figure 1: Coverage Spectrum Prices by Category (2007-2016), Page 7 (sourced by NERA Economic Consulting). Note: spectrum prices are expressed and categorised in the price paid per MHz of bandwidth, per head of population ($/MHz/pop).
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