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5G’s first five years: A look ahead

With 5G mobile networks edging closer to reality, GSMA Intelligence’s Matthew Iji looks ahead to consider how the technology will be adopted between now and 2024

5G is now a reality. At the end of last year, we saw the first commercial 5G launches in the US and South Korea. More markets are set to follow in 2019, with launches expected in pioneering European markets (including the UK), China, Australia and the Middle East over the coming months.

In five years’ time – by the end of 2023 – we expect 88 markets worldwide to have a 5G network up and running. These new networks will offer a greatly enhanced mobile broadband performance, with speeds eventually far surpassing 1Gbps and offering super-low latency.

But while faster speeds will be great for consumers, 5G’s biggest impact could be on industry. Here we look at the various forms of 5G and how it could affect our lives over the next five years.

5G dominated proceedings at MWC in February, with announcements on commercial launches, partnerships and a host of use case examples and demonstrations. Six 5G-ready smartphones were announced: top-of-the-range “foldable” form factors from the likes of Samsung (Galaxy Fold) and Huawei (the Mate X), stole the headlines. But there were also 5G phones from Xiaomi, LG, ZTE and others.

Apple has never been among the first manufacturers to experiment with a new-generation technology and is likely to take the same approach with 5G. The first 5G iPhones are expected to arrive in 2020, and will provide a real boost to adoption.

However, because of lengthening of the replacement cycle, a likely premium on devices and the absence of any ready use cases, we do not expect 5G devices to make up more than a quarter of total connections in most developed markets until after 2022.

It goes without saying that mobile operators will benefit greatly from mass adoption of 5G smartphones. The high speed and increased features of devices will drive data usage far beyond what is used today. Cisco forecasts that global mobile data usage will quadruple between 2018 and 2022. With 4G, operators moved to data-centric business models, often providing talk and text for free, with charges based on the amount of data used.

With the arrival of 5G, we will see this trend continue, with operators hoping to monetise the increasing data usage. Also, we can expect operators to look to use the capabilities of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to offer gaming and show live events. Beyond the home, 5G hotspots will be situated in places such as petrol stations and traffic lights, allowing connected vehicles to download a huge amount of data quickly.

As we have seen with some of the early 5G deployments, 5G is also fast enough to be positioned as a fixed wireless access (FWA) solution that enables mobile operators compete with fibre for a share of the home broadband market. As 5G expands across the globe, FWA will therefore reach into areas previously unserved by broadband, playing a key role in connecting the unconnected.

New technologies and use cases

Beyond the consumer use cases, a number of companies are looking at 5G as a way to enable new technologies and use cases, including autonomous driving, industrial automation and remote surgery. Although various technology companies and car makers are conducting trials of self-driving cars on public roads, factors such as legislation and public perception mean we might not see mainstream adoption until five or 10 years from now.

None of these use cases will be possible without spectrum. 5G high-frequency spectrum will offer a huge amount of capacity in densely populated areas, preventing disruption to data services in places such as sports stadiums and music events. However, this capacity will come at a cost: the frequency struggles to travel more than a few hundred metres, making it economically unviable outside of urban locations.

5G network coverage will first be constructed in major city centres, but by the end of 2023 it will cover more than a quarter of the world’s population, with lower-frequency signals providing access outside of population centres.

The next five years represent the first steps of the 5G journey for consumers, businesses and the mobile industry itself.  It will ultimately change the way we communicate, work and live our lives.  However, 5G will still account for less than 10% of global mobile connections at the end of 2023, while network investments will continue to focus largely on 4G

Although 5G launches are set to accelerate this year, the opinion of many at MWC was that a strong sense of caution is needed, particularly around the economics of deployment and roll-out strategies.

Despite all the hype, 5G’s first five years will still be only the beginning.

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