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Faster-than-predicted growth for 5G with 3.5 billion subs forecast by 2026

Despite uncertainties caused by Covid-19, new research from Ericsson reveals that the pace of introducing new 5G functionality has increased in 2020

The current rate of 5G uptake in subscriptions and population coverage confirms that the technology is deploying the fastest of any generation of mobile connectivity, and the global market is on track to have 220 million 5G subscriptions by the end of 2020, according to research from Virgin Media.

Since its last study of the comms market, Ericsson has in the November 2020 Ericsson mobility report raised its year-end 2020 estimate for global 5G subscriptions and calculates that as service providers continue to build out their next-generation networks, more than a billion people – 15% of the global population – will live in an area that has 5G coverage at the end of this year.

The increase is largely due to the rapid uptake in China – driven by a national strategic focus and leading to 175 million subscriptions, 11% of the country’s mobile subscription base and almost 80% of the global total. Other key drivers are intense competition among service providers, as well as increasingly affordable 5G smartphones from several suppliers.

By contrast, North America is expected to end 2020 with about 4% of its mobile subscriptions being 5G, while Europe is likely to end the year with about 1% of 5G subscriptions in the region. Ericsson noted that during the year, some countries delayed auctions of the radio spectrum needed to support 5G deployment.

The study also found that the rate of introducing 5G New Radio (NR) functionality is increasing, with more than 150 5G device models launched commercially. Many devices support 5G Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) and dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). The first 5G standalone (SA) networks have been launched in Asia and North America, as well as the first devices capable of NR carrier aggregation.

Also, fixed wireless access (FWA) is now offered by nearly two-thirds of service providers globally. FWA connections are forecast to more than treble, reaching more than 180 million by the end of 2026 – accounting for a quarter of all mobile network data traffic.

The report also highlights why 5G success will not be limited to coverage or subscription numbers alone. It says 5G’s value will also be determined by new use cases and applications, the first of which have already started to emerge. 

It also stresses that critical IoT [internet of things], intended for time-critical applications that demand data delivery within a specified time duration, will be introduced in 5G networks. This, says Ericsson, will enable a wide range of time-critical services for consumers, enterprises and public institutions across various sectors, with 5G public and dedicated networks. 

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Going forward, the report suggests that by 2026, three-fifths of the world’s population will have access to 5G coverage, with 5G subscriptions forecast to reach 3.5 billion, accounting for two-fifths of mobile subscriptions in 2026. In 2026, 5G is set to represent more than half of all mobile data traffic and as commercialisation is now moving at a rapid pace, by 2026 Ericsson forecasts that 80% of North American mobile subscriptions will be 5G, the highest level of any region in the world.

“5G is entering the next phase, when new devices and applications make the most out of the benefits it provides, while service providers continue to build out 5G,” said Fredrik Jejdling, executive vice-president and head of networks at Ericsson. “Mobile networks are a critical infrastructure for many aspects of everyday life and 5G will be key to future economic prosperity. This year has seen society take a big leap towards digitisation. The pandemic has highlighted the impact connectivity has on our lives and has acted as a catalyst for rapid change.”

Cloud gaming is another emerging application category cited in the report, which shows that the combined capabilities provided by 5G networks and edge compute technologies will enable game streaming services on smartphones to compete with a quality of experience on a par with PC or console counterparts. Ericsson said such capability would lead to “innovative” immersive games based on mobility. 

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