5G becomes the fastest-deployed mobile generation to date

Tenth anniversary edition of in-depth study of mobile market reveals 5.5 billion additional smartphone users since 2011 and 4.4 billion 5G subscriptions forecast by the end of 2027

There has been an almost 300-fold increase in mobile data traffic over the past decade, according to the 10th edition of the Ericsson mobility report.

The study presented projections and analysis of the latest trends in the mobile industry, based on past and current data, validated with network measurements revealing trends in 5G, internet of things (IoT) and fixed wireless access (FWA), among other areas. It looked back at some of the key trends and events that have shaped the past decade, as well as revealing the latest forecasts towards 2027. 

“Mobile communication has had an incredible impact on society and business over the last 10 years,” said Fredrik Jejdling, executive vice-president and head of networks at Ericsson. “When we look ahead to 2027, mobile networks will be more integral than ever to how we interact, live and work. Our latest Ericsson mobility report shows that the pace of change is accelerating, with technology playing a crucial role.”

The premise that 5G will become the fastest-deployed mobile generation to date was emphasised in the study, with an updated estimate of close to 660 million 5G subscriptions by the end of this year and 4.4 billion forecast for the end of 2027, equalling about half of all mobile subscriptions at that time. 5G is said to be on track, by 2027, to become the dominant mobile access technology, based on subscriptions globally.

The report drew a comparison between the uptake of 5G and that of the previous generation of mobile devices. It noted that the deployment of 4G LTE networks has been pivotal in generating 5.5 billion new smartphone connections worldwide since 2011, by which time there is now a market availability of more than 20,000 different 4G device models.

Yet the report indicated a much earlier technology lifecycle of 5G devices, with 5G handsets today accounting for 23% of global volumes, compared with 8% of 4G handsets at the corresponding point in its lifecycle. Ericsson said this trend is helping to fuel what it calls an exponential growth of mobile data traffic.

By 2027, 5G is also expected to account for about half of all mobile subscriptions worldwide – covering three-quarters of the world’s population and carrying just over three-fifths (62%) of global smartphone traffic. The increase was attributed to stronger-than-expected demand in China and North America, driven in part by decreasing prices of 5G devices. There was also a net addition of 98 million 5G subscriptions globally in Q3 2021, compared with 48 million new 4G subscriptions.

Total mobile network data traffic was up 42% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2021, accounting for about 78 exabytes (EB), including traffic generated by FWA services. In Q3 alone, mobile data traffic was more than all mobile traffic ever generated up until the end of 2016. New forecasts reveal that total mobile network data traffic is likely to reach 370EB by the end of 2027.

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FWA connections are forecast to almost treble – from 88 million by the end of 2021 to around 230 million in 2027 – and almost half of these connections are expected to be carried over 5G networks.

As in the previous quarters of 2021, the year-on-year traffic growth rate in the third quarter remained as expected, 42%, compared with what were described as the “extraordinary” peaks in 2018 and the first part of 2019. Quarter-on-quarter growth was around 8%. In absolute numbers, this equates to the addition of 5.6EB a month in just one quarter, which is the same as the total for Q1 2016.

Total monthly mobile network data traffic in Q3 2021 reached about 78EB. Populous markets that launch 5G early are likely to lead traffic growth over the forecast period, and by 2027, Ericsson expects 5G networks to carry 62% of total mobile data traffic.

One of the key trends in recent years in the mobile industry has been the rise in broadband IoT and the Ericsson report showed this sector has now surpassed 2G/3G as the segment that connects the largest share of IoT applications. It is expected to account for 47% of all cellular IoT connections by the end of 2021, compared with 37% for 2G/3G and 16% for Massive IoT technologies (NB-IoT and Cat-M).

Ericsson said new forecasts reaffirmed the rapid acceleration of Massive IoT deployments in coming years, spanning use cases such as e-health wearables, logistical asset tracking, environmental monitoring and smart meters, and smart manufacturing tracking and monitoring devices. Massive IoT deployments are forecast to account for just over half of all cellular IoT connections by 2027.

The study found that video streaming accounted for most mobile network traffic, and noted that this has naturally been a focus area for improvement. It added that compression techniques and adaptive mechanisms have been very effective at lowering the time-to-play and adapting to changing network conditions.

But while streaming is buffered, web services place higher demands on network performance because they require instant speed. Therefore, said Ericsson, meeting the requirements for web browsing will also satisfy the demands of many other use cases, including HD video streaming and social media.

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