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5G is making great global progress compared to the early days of 4G LTE and 3G


While it might sometimes feel like 5G networks are expanding at a terribly sluggish pace, especially in the US, one of the big problems is actually the way we analyze the data coming in from wireless service providers around the world. Our expectations may have also been a tad unrealistic, as 5G Americas compares the adoption rate of the next standard in mobile connectivity so far with the early numbers of 4G LTE and 3G technologies, which suggests 5G has in fact got off to a historically “fast start”, achieving “healthy growth” already.

Based on data collected by a tech research “powerhouse” called Omdia, 5G Americas, which is an industry trade organization composed of “leading telecommunications service providers and manufacturers”, estimates there are now more than 17.7 million 5G connections globally. Of course, the current number is likely to be even higher, as the tally was recorded at the end of 2019, representing a massive surge of 329 percent from the year’s third quarter.

5G rollouts are really not as bad as they seem

Although 17.7 million is still little more than a small fraction of the 5.3 billion LTE connections accumulated worldwide after ten years of operation, it’s undoubtedly important to highlight where the latter technology was at the same point in its expansion that 5G finds itself in today. 

Commercially released in the final quarter of 2009, 4G LTE was only used by around 1,000 customers (yup, one thousand people) in Western Europe “initially”, adding 20,000 users in North America in 2010 for a grand total of, believe it or not, 23,250 connections globally by the end of that year.

Things didn’t improve very rapidly, as 4G LTE needed roughly two and a half years to jump to 17.9 million connections, which is pretty much where 5G is just a few quarters in. 3G adoption was even slower, not to mention 2G’s long walk of 14 quarters from 0 to close to 18 million users in December 1995.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean you should expect to see a billion people connected to 5G tomorrow, but the number could grow from 17.7 million to a robust 91 million by the end of 2020. Of those 91 million connections, North America is projected to account for 13.9 million, which would be a very solid improvement from a regional tally of only 587,000 in Q4 2019. You can call that the T-Mobile effect, seeing as how Verizon and AT&T’s 5G rollouts remain primarily focused on small parts of large cities.

There’s plenty of room for both 4G LTE and 5G growth for now

Until 5G becomes truly prevalent, which is unlikely to happen earlier than 2025 according to some industry pundits, 4G LTE will naturally continue to rule the usage charts, looking at a predicted jump from 5.3 to 5.9 billion global connections by the end of 2020, including 513 million (representing a 6.1 percent year-on-year growth) in North America alone.
Those numbers are driven by ubiquitous LTE-enabled phones, as well as a grand total of 993 LTE and LTE Advanced networks available worldwide on a large scale as of March 16, 2020, compared to only 59 5G networks, many of which still suffer greatly in terms of both coverage and speed.

But by the end of 2020, that latter figure could nearly quadruple to 200, while the coverage is expected to gradually improve over time and the number of compatible phones will surge rapidly, with prices set to dramatically drop

All in all, the 5G revolution is actually ahead of schedule, according to 5G Americas, and should continue to ramp up a little faster than many analysts had initially forecasted, even though this expansion might feel slow for the general public.

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