5G in 2022: The key stats
Following the travails of 5G is a bit like supporting a middling Premier League football team as it slides back and forth between victory and regelation.
But after ten years of hurt, wrangles over infrastructure costs, ROI anxiety, regulation, and even aviation disruptions, 5G is coming home with connectivity accelerating worldwide.
In its Mobile Economy Report this year the GSMA said that it expects the number of 5G global connections to reach one billion in 2022 – a figure predicted to double to two billion by 2025 – by which point 5G connections will account for a quarter of all mobile connections.
In its Q4 2021 Mobility Report Ericsson raised its global forecast for 5G mobile from 580 million to 660 a million by the end of 2021 – citing stronger than expected demand in China and North America.
These pioneering markets – as well as South Korea – were responsible for fuelling 5G’s growth last year. China alone counts around 497million 5G users, which comprise of subscribers to its two main, state-owned carriers – China Mobile and China Unicom.
These numbers are expected to exceed 560 million by 2023, according to Chinese government figures released last July. By next year, 5G networks in this territory are forecast to be used by over 40% of mobile phone users, the government added.
North America, which last year claimed eighty million 5G subscriptions, is another territory on course for massive growth – with numbers expected to reach over 400 million by 2027.
All this comes despite a rollout setback earlier this year when AT&T and Verizon agreed to hold back 10% of the 4,500 5G towers they own which are located near US airports, due to concerns by the FAA that they could interfere with the signals on some planes.
5G business subscriptions in the US are also climbing. Analysts at GlobalData reveal that US business subscriptions across cellular generations have risen from 175 million in 2020 to 194 million last year; while IoT cellular subscriptions hit 144 million in 2021, compared to 125 million in 2020.
South Korea, one of the first countries to roll out commercial 5G networks, now has 36% of its population using 5G, according to tech market research firm Omdia, and this infrastructure has already brought with it self-driving cars and digital factories.
Last year the territory also ranked number one in the 5G download speeds globally, four times faster than Taiwan and around ten times faster than the US, according to internet-speed analysis firm Speedcheck.
Take up and innovations of 5G in these key territories leaves Europe looking a little passive by comparison. According to the GSMA’s report this year, while 5G in Europe is forecast to become available to more people (304m) than in the developed Asia Pacific region (195m), uptake is comparatively low.
The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) State of Digital Communications report states that the uptake of 5G in Europe accounts for only 2.8% of the total mobile connections, compared to 13.4% in the United States and 29.3% in South Korea: despite being available to 62% of the population.
Reasons for this disappointing take-up have been attributed to market fragmentation and contributing factors include various European governments delays in spectrum assignments due to the pandemic as well as and supporting multiple network generations.
However, Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read warned at Mobile World Congress last month that, at current rates, it will take a decade for Europe to match the transformational “full 5G experience” that China is set to achieve this year already.
“If we look at 5G population coverage around the world – South Korea is over 90%, China 60%, USA 45%, and Europe under 10% – and with Africa hardly even at the starting line,” said Read.
“Europe will only catch up if we reverse the ill-health and hyper-fragmentation of our sector. We must have local scale to close the investment gap. Otherwise, we will be the passive by-stander of the new tech order,” he added.
Government support & ‘hyper sector collaboration’
A challenge for operators everywhere is the capex investment needed to upgrade infrastructures: the GSMA estimates $600 billion will be needed between 2022 and 2025 and 85% of this investment will be directed at 5G networks.
In this year’s report the GSMA called for government support to help the mobile industry by using public funds for connectivity for demand-side stimulation; investment in digital skills training for the public to make them aware of uses for connected devices and a prioritisation of the digital transformation of government services, so that everyone can access them digitally.
The association also called for an end to restrictions on the use of spectrum, to “provide fair and efficient spectrum awards to maximise access to affordable mobile broadband services.”
There were also calls for the Silicon Valley giants to share the cost burden of increased data traffic growth. Mobile data will more than triple in most regions over the next six years – driven by increased smartphone adoption and video usage. Mobile data traffic per smartphone in 2021 was 11.4GB by 2027 it is forecast to reach 41GB.
In his keynote at Mobile World Congress this year Telefonica chairman and CEO Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete, who also chairs the GSMA, alluded to streamers such as YouTube and Netflix, who use telco networks heavily.
“We need a hyper sector collaboration. We respect all players of the new economy, but we also deserve respect. We want to compete on equal terms: same service, same rules, same obligation. We are not asking for privileges just for justice,” he said.
In terms of 5G and enterprise, the good news is that there are some clear business cases emerging. One technology that the GSMA expects enterprises to adopt is standalone 5G, which offers additional capacity and delivers much lower latency for certain use cases such as Industry 4.0, industrial IoT and commercial augmented and virtual reality.
According to the GSMA, at the end of 2021 there were 22 commercial 5G SA networks in 16 countries around the world, with several more expected to go live in the coming years.
In Spain, for example Telefónica has announced plans to target three enterprise 5G use cases for its 5G SA network in 2022: automated guided robot vehicles for use in places such as warehouses; remote maintenance systems using technology such as smart glasses; and drones for site surveillance.
According to this year’s GSMA Mobile Economy Report the most popular services and cost benefits for SA 5G appears to be Machine2Machine communication (79%); simplified network architecture (66%) and network costs optimisation (59%).
While commercialisation is still in its initial stages, there’s also a growing commitment from a broad set of stakeholders, including governments, to accelerate open radio access network (RAN) adoption.
The technology’s proponents believe that a more open radio access network architecture will improve competition, network flexibility and cost.
In the UK, the government has increased funding for open RAN projects and has set targets for operators to run 35% of the UK’s mobile network traffic over open RAN by 2030.
UK operator Vodafone has activated its first 5G open RAN site as part of plans to roll out 2,500 4G and 5G open RAN sites across the UK by 2027.
During MWC this year Vodafone’s group CTO Johan Wibergh announced that the operator will use OpenRAN technology in 30% of its masts across Europe by 2030.
Around 30,000 Vodafone cell sites across Europe will eventually use OpenRAN, he added, with rural areas the first to benefit from the new 4G and 5G masts, which use this more flexible radio technology.
In Germany meanwhile, the government has selected the first projects to receive cash from a €300 million fund created to develop and evaluate open RAN technology. One of the winning projects is an open RAN test lab run by a consortium of partners, including Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefónica.
One huge benefit of 5G is its potential to help organisations with their sustainability goals – from increasing efficiency and productivity at traffic junctions in smart cities to providing remote care and optimising manufacturing processes.
One McKinsey report on smart cities has calculated that by 2025, cities that deploy smart-mobility applications have the potential to cut commuting times by 15 to 20% on average.
In a dense city with extensive transit, smart technologies could save the average commuter almost 15 minutes a day, it added. In a developing city with more gruelling commutes, the improvement might be 20 to 30 minutes every day.
While these connected technologies exist for companies to use today, at MWC this year GSMA director general Mats Granryd urged firms harness their benefits more.
“These technologies are still very underused by energy intensive industries such as energy, transport, construction, and manufacturing,” he claimed.
“If those four industries started to use these technologies it would enable global savings of around 11 Gigatonnes of carbon emissions by 2030.
“That is equivalent of 40% of the total required reduction. It’ s the same as decommissioning around 2,700 coal fired powerplants – that’s a huge opportunity,” he added.
While the widespread adoption of 5G offers many benefits, a state sponsored cyber-attack or a denial-of-service (DoS) attack, could lead to mass reputational damage and trust issues that could slow the technology’s uptake.
As networks become more software-based and decentralized, their surface attack area and points of entry only increase. Deloitte’s 2022 Telecom industry outlook found that approximately 80% of executives at organizations considering 5G adoption expressed security as a top concern.
Deloitte also noted however, that for telcos that have already taken the steps to evaluate and minimize the threats arising from their own 5G and software-centric networks there are opportunities to pass this knowledge on through offering 5G security services to enterprises seeking to deploy their own advanced wireless networks.
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