Though 5G is growing, 4G still has room aplenty to grow too, says a report by the GSMA, the industry association representing mobile network operators.
4G adoption isn't going to peak until 2023, when just under 60% of users worldwide will use 4G connections. And growth possibilities for mobile operators extend further than those two technologies, too.
Connected planet: Forget 5G - the biggest growth in new mobile subscribers will be in remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa (like rural Somaliland, above) and Asia, says the GSMA. (Source: Fiona Graham)
"Today half of the people in the world are connected, but that means half are still unconnected," said Mats Granryd, the GSMA's director general, during his Mobile World Congress keynote.
Developing countries are where 4G has the most headroom for growth. 4G has peaked, and in some places even has begun to decline, in leading 5G markets like China, South Korea, and the US. China is unlikely to give up its early lead in 5G. Even by 2025, it will account for nearly half of all total 5G connections, 828 million. By comparison North America will have 219 million, and Europe 236 million.
Meanwhile more than two in five humans will live within reach of a 5G network by the end of 2025. By then, a fifth of total mobile connections will be 5G.
Coronavirus has seen little impact on the momentum of 5G's rollout. In some regions, operators have even sped things up, looking to boost capacity at a time of heightened demand, says the report by GSMA analyst Kenechi Okeleke.
The GSMA publishes the global version of this mobile economy report each year during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Everybody's on the phone
At the end of last year, 67% of the world's population had a mobile network subscription of some sort. This means 5.2 billion people, generating $4.4 trillion of world GDP through mobile technologies and services. This also means adding new subscribers is increasingly difficult, with markets getting saturated. Plus a challenging financial climate for mobile operators is making them less tempted to invest to reach untapped rural populations.
There will be a half billion new subscribers between now and 2025. Most of them – nearly two thirds – will be in large, under-reached markets in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Not to mention a billion more mobile Internet subscribers. Mobile Internet users, now 51% of the world's population at 4.0 billion, will reach 60% or 5 billion by 2025, the GSMA predicts.
Smarter mobiles and things too
We will quickly get smarter, too – smartphones will make up 81% of mobile connections in 2025, up from 68% in 2020. And things will also get smarter, and fast. There will be 24.0 billion Internet of Things (IoT) connections in 2025, up by 85% from 13.0 billion in 2020. Still, COVID is stretching out replacement cycles – from 2.25 years on average, up to three years or more. With many consumers pinched in the pocket, there's a pivot to lower-cost handsets, with average retail prices for 5G handsets falling more than a third since 2019.
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And total worldwide operator revenues, $1.04 trillion in 2020, will creep up slightly more slowly, to $1.15 trillion at the half-decade mark. It will be a pricey five years for operators, who will outlay $1.1 trillion globally in capital expenditures. Of these, 80% will be on 5G networks. The biggest winners of these new networks, says the GSMA, will be the manufacturing, utilities, and professional and financial services industries.
And all told, 5G could add as much as $2.2 trillion to the global economy at the close of 2034. For context, that's enough to buy 1.8 billion iPhone 12 Pros.