Telecommunications company Ericsson has released its latest Mobility Report, and its long-term predictions settle on 2026 as the year that 5G becomes the global wireless standard by finally supplanting aging 4G infrastructure and devices.
5G expansion has been rapid, Ericsson said, noting that 5G subscriptions with capable devices grew by more than 70 million during the first quarter of 2021, reaching 290 million. Ericsson predicts that there will be 580 million 5G subscriptions by the end of 2021, and by 2026 North America will lead in shares of mobile subscriptions that are 5G, with 84% of mobile users having 5G coverage.
That puts 5G on pace to reach 1 billion users two years quicker than 4G, Ericsson said. Citing 2026 again, the global 5G subscription base is forecasted to be 3.5 billion users, accounting for 40% of all mobile subscriptions.
Ericsson said 2026 is the year 5G will reach global penetration, with all 10 of the regions it defines having at least some degree of access. The percent of users Ericsson predicts will be on 5G in 2026 ranges from Sub-Saharan Africa at 7% to North America, which will have the aforementioned 84% adoption. In 2020, by contrast North East Asia had the highest 5G penetration, with 9% of its mobile plans being 5G. By 2026 the region will have 65% 5G adoption, putting it in fourth place behind North America, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Western Europe.
Smartphones and their users aren’t the only devices benefitting from the rapid rollout of 5G. Ericsson makes mention of two distinct categories that are also rapidly expanding along with 5G’s growth: fixed wireless access and broadband Internet of Things.
Fixed wireless access is any service that uses 4G or 5G as a way to connect fixed locations to the internet. Largely seen as a way to eliminate last-mile headaches in rural locations, FWA is now being offered by more than 70% of service providers, and 90% of those that have launched 5G service. By the end of 2026, Ericsson predicts, more than 20% of total mobile network data traffic around the world will be from FWA.
Ericsson said that FWA adoption is largely driven by three factors: demand for broadband connectivity, cost-effectiveness compared with wired broadband service and government subsidies fueled by seeing broadband access as a vital part of digital transformation and economic growth initiatives.
Perhaps most interesting for business leaders, broadband IoT, which the report defines as using either 4G or 5G, is set to overtake 2G/3G IoT as narrow-band (NB-IoT) and Cat-M (4G chips designed for IoT hardware) products are expected to increase by 80% in 2021.
Broadband connections for IoT devices opens up a whole new avenue of use cases, Ericsson said, citing cloud-based augmented reality/virtual reality, remote control of machines and vehicles, cloud robotics, better cloud gaming and real-time coordination and control of machines and processes as potential use cases. All of these services are time critical, Ericsson said, and will be made possible by further expansion of 5G standalone IoT devices, which don’t require a 4G backbone to operate.