Operators rush to move forward 5G services

Tech analyst firm CCS Insight has raised its near-term expectations for 5G connections after a flurry of operators flaunted their ambitions to bring services to market more quickly than previously stated.

According to the forecast, 5G connections will reach 340 million in 2021, before surpassing 1 billion in the first half of 2023. By 2025, the total is expected to hit 2.7 billion, equivalent to more than one connection in every five in the world.

“The intentions of major US carriers to launch 5G in late 2018 have been clear for a while. But recently we’ve seen greater urgency to deploy networks from providers in Europe, the Middle East and China,” said Kester Mann, principal analyst at CCS Insight. “While Europe may still be around a year adrift of the leading markets in 5G, some regional operators are clearly determined to launch commercial services as soon as next year”.

Last week, Telia launched a pre-commercial 5G network in Helsinki in preparation for a full commercial offering in 2019. The Nordic provider has a pedigree in early launches of mobile technology, having claimed to be “first in the world” to launch commercial 4G, in late 2009.

Recent bullish statements from other networks including Telecom Italia, BT, Swisscom and Telenor point to 5G becoming a commercial reality in Europe sooner than previously assumed. Indeed, Finnish operator Elisa has gone one step further, claiming to have already launched a commercial network, albeit without supporting devices.

These ambitions contrast with the more cautious approach of major groups like Vodafone, Orange, Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica, which have only committed to commercial 5G services in 2020. “Nevertheless, once networks are launched, the motivation to bring users onto them will be huge”, commented Mann. CCS Insight’s 5G forecast for Western Europe sees over 20 million 5G connections at the end of 2020, growing fivefold to more than 100 million two years later.

Another region with a more positive near-term outlook is the Middle East, after a quartet of regional providers made bold claims of early network deployments within days of each other in May 2018. Although their assertions are likely to have been strongly motivated by local one-upmanship, they serve to illustrate more bullish expectations for the region than previously assumed.

China remains the biggest source globally of 5G adoption by far, and several factors have prompted CCS Insight to raise its expectations still further.

Foremost was an indication that the country’s largest operator, China Mobile, may launch ahead of previous expectations, in 2019. Additionally, local infrastructure suppliers Huawei and ZTE may sharpen their focus on the domestic market following recent geopolitical tension that has led to more challenging environments in several markets, including the US and Australia. And a potential merger of China Telecom and China Unicom has been rumoured to be driven by a desire to achieve global 5G supremacy.

We expect China to overtake the US to become the biggest 5G market in 2020, with 40 million connections. By 2025, connections in China will surpass 1 billion, accounting for nearly four connections in every ten worldwide.

In the US, carriers are gearing up to launch the first commercial 5G networks, possibly as soon as this month. The initial focus will be on fixed wireless technology; however, while this will enable early deployment in the absence of supporting smartphones, CCS Insight sees it as only a niche opportunity. Even in the long term, it will represent just 1 percent of all 5G connections worldwide by 2025.

All these early network launches wouldn’t allow users to move to 5G connections without the efforts of smartphone makers and chipset suppliers to deliver the first 5G-enabled mobile phones as soon as Spring 2019. The very first handsets will have room for improvement, but by the end of 2019, many major flagship smartphones will support the new technology. “A stagnant device market in 2018, especially in affluent countries, means that Android smartphone makers will jump at the opportunity to offer some innovation in the hope of tempting people to replace their phone next year”, commented Marina Koytcheva, vice president of forecasting at CCS Insight.

The iPhone is unlikely to be among the first 5G phones in 2019. But despite Apple’s possible late arrival, almost 60 million 5G-enabled smartphones are forecast to be sold in 2019, growing to over half a billion in 2021.

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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine