The first, the best, the lack of iPhone 5: Is Sweden's 4G crown slipping?

As part of our series of articles examining the 4G LTE landscape across Europe, ZDNet takes a look at how Sweden's fourth-generation services are measuring up.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer
A Swedish summer house - a potential sweet spot for the country's 4G growth. Image: Shutterstock.

Sweden may have had the world's first LTE network, but 4G subscriptions in the country are only now accelerating as operators add a growing number of devices to tempt consumers to make the switch to 4G.

More than five years ago, the Swedish Post and Telecoms Authority (PTS) did what a number of regulators in other European countries are still struggling with today: auctioning off LTE-appropriate spectrum.

Sweden sold its first tranche of 4G-compatible spectrum in 2008, auctioning off licences for the 2600MHz spectrum band and clearing the way for early LTE deployments.

Three Sweden, the country's smallest operator, secured 2x10Mhz blocks in the band, while Telia, Telenor and Tele2 (the first, second and third placed carriers respectively) secured 2x20MHz blocks. The auction raised 2bn SEK (€226m) in total and set the stage for Sweden's four-operator 4G market.  

More spectrum went under the hammer three years later. While Norway's 800MHz digital dividend auctions are set to begin this summer, neighbouring Sweden's wrapped up in 2011, raising 2bn SEK ($300m) from winning bidders Three, Net4Mobility (a joint venture between Telenor and Tele2), and Telia, which were allocated 2x10Mhz blocks each in the band. The spectrum's propagation makes it popular for use in rural regions, as 800Mhz networks need less infrastructure to cover a given area than networks using other 4G spectrum bands.

Sweden's 4G landscape

Today, Sweden has almost total LTE coverage by population with all major operators offering 4G services.

Sweden's incumbent mobile operator Telia was the first Swedish carrier – and the first in the world – to launch an LTE network, which went live in Sweden's capital Stockholm in December 2009. Today, that network reaches 700 towns, cities and villages, and covers about 95 percent of Sweden's nine million strong population.

Telia plans to double that number - reaching 1,400 locations by the end of 2013 - and is adding extra base stations to boost capacity at existing LTE locations. 

"Sweden's LTE coverage is second to none. The regulator has issued all the frequencies necessary for meeting rural and urban demand for the time being, and with high data speeds available" — Tom Shepherd

Telia's main rivals, Tele2 and Telenor, also have their own 4G network. Launched in 2010, the jointly-operated 4G network is based on shared spectrum in the 900MHz and 2600MHz frequency bands. At launch, the pair set a goal of covering 99 percent of the population by 2013 — a goal that should be achieved in the first quarter of this year, according to Tele2.

Three launched its LTE network in late 2011 in three cities, and is still building it out today. The operator hopes to hit 95 percent coverage by population by next year.

In short, according to Telegeography communications analyst Tom Shepherd, Sweden remains something of a leader in 4G infrastructure.

"Sweden's LTE coverage is second to none. The regulator has issued all the frequencies necessary for meeting rural and urban demand for the time being, and with high data speeds available," said Shepherd.

Slow takeup of 4G

Operators' early investments in 4G meant that by October 2011, 48 percent of the population were covered by an LTE network. But, despite the country's headstart in LTE, 4G subscriptions remain a relatively small percentage of the total: in June 2012, only 83,000 of Sweden's 13 million mobile subscriptions were on LTE.

Shepherd pointed out regardless of 4G uptake, there are cost benefits to carriers to moving towards LTE on a national level as a result of the cost of dealing with growing data loads.  

"A major underlying factor – in fact, the overriding factor – in driving all operators worldwide to migrate to 4G is the cost benefits to them. Upgrading core/radio networks and all related systems to cope with ever-increasing demand for mobile data will rapidly become more expensive and difficult for them if they do not implement the all-IP, converged 2G/3G/4G infrastructure model, whilst the world movement towards LTE/LTE-A as the standard has its own economies of scale benefits. So, whether most customers really need it or not, it makes sense to implement national 4G networks now [or yesterday, in many Swedish operators' cases] rather than later."

However, while 4G subscriptions may be small, they're growing: the number of LTE subscriptions increase 871 percent between June 2011 and 2012, according to the PTS' most recent figures (PDF), and have doubtless grown again since then.

Telia now has 130,000 4G subscriptions in Sweden, according to a spokesman, and the operator expects to accelerate growth via "4G-ready" subscriptions that lower the threshold to connect to the network. Apple's LTE-enabled iPhone 5 does not support any 4G network in Sweden, but there are more handsets coming to market that do.  

"We now see a flurry of new 4G-devices in the market. Manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, Nokia, HTC, Huawei and LG are producing 4G smartphones, tablets and routers. Those devices now act as drivers for 4G," said Telia's spokesman. 

Tele2 – which has 30 percent of the Swedish mobile voice and data market compared to Telia's 39 percent – is also trailing its rival on 4G: as of last October, it had 80,000 4G subscribers, according to its CEO Mats Granryd. Granryd's own Tele2 4G home router gives a "steady 25 to 27Mbps", he said, and was actually constrained by the router rather than network capacity. 

Telenor, which has 17 percent of the market, does not specify 3G and 4G subscriber numbers. However, a spokesman for the operator noted that "all our mobile broadband subscriptions sold today have 4G as default". 

Meanwhile, Three – whose mobile market share doubled to 10 percent between 2006 and 2012 – now has a 4G network that reaches between about 65 percent of the population and aims to reach 90 to 95 percent, according to a spokesman. Three's 4G is included on all data plans if the area has LTE coverage. 

Its most popular product is a mobile broadband subscription with a router, according to the operator.

Mobile broadband growth

And it may be mobile data that drives 4G subscriptions in the shorter term. Total mobile broadband subscriptions are growing significantly in Sweden: mobile broadband as an add-on grew by 1.9 million subscribers (82 percent) in the year to June 2012 to 4.2 million, according to PTS, while standalone mobile broadband subscriptions for dongles or routers grew 12 percent year on year to just over two million. While the PTS doesn't break out how much of that is 3G or 4G, Telia now has a large chunk of all data going over its LTE network. "We are really seeing 4G taking off. Right now more than 30 percent of all mobile data traffic runs through our 4G network," a spokesman said.

Telegeography's Shepherd points out that in markets with poor fixed-line infrastructure, such as Latin America, 4G is often easily sold as a replacement to fixed line.

Sweden's relatively good fixed-line broadband infrastructure doesn't therefore make 4G appealing as a home broadband alternative, but 4G routers may have found a sweet spot in the Swedish fritidshus or summer house. Statistics Sweden counted 168,000 summer houses in 2010 and Tele2s CEO Mats Granryd in October said 4G is "easy to sell" for such properties. Its 15Mbps 4G router service with 15GB of data data costs 199 SEK (€24) per month.   

Monthly prices

So how much does getting online on one of the world's biggest 4G networks cost? Telia offers 12 4G mobile plans that (including the device) with a monthly cost of 199 SEK (€24) with 500MB of data, 349 SEK (€42) for 3GB limit, or 599 SEK (€71) for 6GB. Among the handsets on offer with 4G plans are the Samsung Galaxy S4 and S3 4G, Nokia Lumia 820 and 920, and Sony Experia Z and V.

Telia's 4G dongle/router plans (excluding hardware costs) start at a 2GB limit with speeds of between 5Mbps and 10Mbps for 99 SEK (€12), 10GB at 10-40Mbps for 199 SEK (€24), or 20GB at 20-100Mbps for 299 SEK (€36). All three may rely on a mix of 4G, 3G and Edge.   

Tele2 sells add-on 4G with several smartphones, such as the Galaxy S3 4G, as well as separate pricing for 4G dongle and router subscriptions. A dongle with up to 15Mbps and 15GB data costs 169 SEK (€20), while the router subscription costs 199 SEK per month (€24). Among the devices on offer with 4G plans are the HTC One, several Galaxy devices, and the Lumia 820 and 920.

The 25Mbps, 40GB cap dongle costs 229 SEK (€36) a month while the router costs 249 SEK (€30) monthly. The 80Mbps 80GB cap dongle and router subscription both cost 349 SEK (€42) per month.

Telenor's 5-10Mbps 20GB deal costs 199 SEK (€24) a month, the 40GB 10-50Mbps bracket costs 299 SEK (€36) per month, and the 80GB 10-50Mbps service costs 349 SEK (€42) monthly. The Galaxy S4 and Note 10.1 are among the handsets available on Telenor's mobile 4G plans, along with the LG Optimus G.

Three is selling its 4G as a blended mobile broadband package and does not make any claims on speed. Its 3GB a month bundle costs 99 SEK (€12) per month, a 10GB per month plan costs 149 SEK (€18), the 30GB offer costs 199 SEK (€24) and the 100GB deal cost 299 SEK (€36) monthly. 

But the elephant in the room for all 4G services in Sweden is that Apple's iPhone 5 owners can't get the speeds offered by any 4G network in the nation. 

Telenor Norway in February announced Apple's iPhone 5 could run on its 4G network after the iOS 6.1.2 update, while Telia Denmark gained iPhone 5 LTE support in late January with the iOS 6.1.1 update.

Within a week of iPhone 5 LTE support, Telia Denmark recorded a 40 percent rise in 4G data traffic, attributing the growth to the arrival of the iPhone 5. Telia Denmark's 4G network, which covered around 75 percent of the population in 2011, uses 1800, 2600 and later 800MHz spectrum.

While Telia and Net4Mobility both have 2x35MHz blocks in the 1800Mhz band, that doesn't necessarily mean Swedes will get iPhone 5 LTE support any time soon.

"We will build our 4G-network on the 1800 band, but when that will start has not yet been decided," said Telia's spokesman.

"The reason why we will start building on the 1800-band is to enhance 4G coverage in certain cities and towns around Sweden. Furthermore, even if selected areas around Sweden get 4G coverage on 1800-band, Apple still needs to do a software update on the iPhone. A lot can happen until then," he added. 

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