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5G Turns 5: A Global Impact on Connectivity

An Article by Telecom Review. 

Upon its initial release in 2019, 5G was heralded as the upcoming breakthrough in technology the world needed, poised to transform lifestyles and professional endeavours. Subsequently, the user base for 5G has skyrocketed to surpass one billion, establishing itself as the fastest-growing mobile communications technology on a global scale. Moving forward, 5G represents a significant step in achieving key objectives like smart cities, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, and the applications of artificial intelligence (AI).

As of December 2023, GSA’s data revealed that there are almost 300 commercial 5G launches worldwide, the majority of which are in the EMEA (184), followed by Asia-Pacific (65) and Americas (46). From this number, over 120 operators are investing in 5G standalone (5G SA).

Reflecting on five years since 5G’s introduction, the global telecom landscape has witnessed significant evolution. With 2023 pioneering 5G’s launch in around 30 new markets, primarily in developing markets across Africa and Asia, and an uptick in demand for affordable private 5G in industries, 2024 is the time to explore optimal strategies to harness 5G’s potential, considering varied regional markets.

 

5G Over the Years

Below is a concise timeline of key highlights in the development of 5G technology:

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2018 – Release 15 Standardization: The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) finalized Release 15, establishing the initial standards for 5G technology.

2019 – Initial 5G Deployments: The first commercial 5G networks were launched in various countries, including the United States, South Korea, and parts of Europe and Asia.

2020 – Global Expansion: 5G networks continued to expand globally, with increased coverage in major urban areas. The deployment of 5G-enabled devices, including smartphones, gained momentum.

2020 – 5G and COVID-19 Pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of reliable and high-speed connectivity. 5G technology played a role in supporting remote work, healthcare services, and digital communication during the crisis.

2021 – C-Band Spectrum Auctions: Many countries conducted spectrum auctions, with a focus on the C-Band spectrum, to accelerate the deployment of mid-band frequencies for 5G networks.

2021 – Continued Device Rollout: The availability of 5G-enabled devices expanded, including smartphones, tablets, and IoT devices, fostering increased consumer adoption.

2021 – Edge Computing Integration: The integration of 5G with edge computing gained attention, enabling low-latency processing and enhancing the performance of applications such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

2021 – Private 5G Networks: Industries began exploring and implementing private 5G networks to address specific connectivity needs, particularly in manufacturing, healthcare, and smart cities.

2022 – Ongoing Standardization: Ongoing work within the 3GPP on subsequent releases, including Release 16 and beyond, to enhance and standardize additional features and capabilities of 5G.

2023 – 5G and Beyond: This year brought increased true high-speed 5G experience, with more real-life use cases and deployment, with efforts intensifying towards 5G Advanced.

 

In the early months of 2019, numerous telecom operators disclosed their intentions to introduce 5G services, with several of them commercially launching during the second quarter of the year. Between 2018 and 2020, more than 50 countries spanning North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific revealed their plans to roll out 5G services. Notably, some nations, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, successfully initiated the commercial rollout of 5G services earlier than originally planned. The UAE secured the leading position among Arab countries and ranked fourth globally in the launch and deployment of 5G networks.

Telecom operators in Asia, including South Korea and China, as well as in the Americas, the UK, and Europe, expedited their 5G trials and field testing, subsequently introducing 5G networks in specific areas. Major players such as Verizon, AT&T, Vodafone, Etisalat, SK Telecom, Zain, stc, Ooredoo, and several others have successfully made 5G accessible to their consumers.

Post-Covid, commercial 5G launches rebounded in the second half of 2022 as operators in developing markets turned on their networks. The November 2023 edition of the Ericsson Mobility report forecasts that global 5G subscriptions will increase by more than 330% from 1.6 billion at the end of 2023 to more than 5.3 billion at the end of 2029.

North America and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are expected to have the highest regional 5G penetration rates by the end of 2029 at 92%, with Western Europe forecast to follow at 85% penetration.

 

Geographical Progress

Entering its fifth year of commercial deployment, 5G networks have been expanding globally, with numerous countries and telecom operators investing in infrastructure to bring the benefits of 5G to their populations.

South Korea, the United States, China, Germany, the UAE, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other European countries, are among the early adopters of 5G networks commercially. Each location exhibited varying levels of coverage and deployment schedules.

GSMA Intelligence anticipates a rapid expansion of 5G, with connections projected to reach 2 billion by 2025, surpassing the rollouts of 3G and 4G. By 2028, 5G is expected to encompass 4.6 billion subscriptions, constituting over half of all mobile subscriptions.

Leading markets in the Asia Pacific region have spearheaded the 5G rollout. South Korea, as the pioneer, established the world’s first nationwide 5G network in April 2019, followed by Australia, the Philippines, China, and New Zealand later that year. As predicted by GSMA Intelligence, the recent second wave of 5G rollouts in countries like Indonesia, India, and Malaysia is poised to make the Asia Pacific one of the largest 5G markets globally by 2025.

Considering how big the country is, India’s mobile users rank among the most data-intensive consumers globally. Following the country’s 5G spectrum auction, operators have successfully addressed some of the data-related challenges, facilitating the offloading of 4G traffic onto 5G networks. This strategy has proven effective, with 25% to 35% of traffic already being offloaded from 4G to 5G.

In the third quarter of 2023, Ookla revealed that the United Arab Emirates and South Korea emerged as frontrunners in 5G performance, boasting the fastest median 5G download speeds globally at 592.01 Mbps and 507.59 Mbps, respectively. Other countries excelling in 5G performance include Malaysia, Qatar, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Kuwait, Macau, Singapore, and India.

A noteworthy shift in regional leadership for 5G performance is evident. In 2022, half of the top 10 countries were from the Middle East, while in 2023, the same proportion hails from the Asia Pacific region. Analysts attribute the success of early adopters in the Asia Pacific to factors such as early spectrum availability and supportive government policies, outperforming major European markets in 5G performance.

Having said that, in Central and Eastern Europe, the progress and challenges of 5G development are becoming more evident. Poland’s decision to allocate C-band spectrum is a positive step forward, while other countries are still in the process of transitioning their networks and reallocating spectrum. European MNOs are repurposing mid-band spectrum to offer faster and more advanced 4G and 5G services. To facilitate this transition, Cullen International’s research shows that 22 of 31 countries in Europe have completed or are planning to shut down their 2G and/or 3G networks.

Despite this, in 2023, France was recognized for having the fastest 5G speed among G7 countries, surpassing the US and Japan, according to an annual report by OpenSignal, securing the top position for the second consecutive year. The average 5G speed in France in 2023 reached 221.1 Mbps, marking an increase of 28.9 Mbps from its average speed in 2022.

Additionally, according to Analysys Mason, Sub-Saharan Africa dominated 5G launches from January to August 2023, accounting for 48% of new launches, while operators in Western Europe and the Middle East and North Africa led new launches of 5G Standalone (5GSA) during the same period.

 

Real 5G Use Cases

 The advent of 5G technology has ushered in a new era of connectivity, bringing with it a multitude of real-use cases that extend far beyond faster download speeds. The speed of 5G connectivity can fluctuate significantly depending on a user’s proximity to a 5G tower and the surrounding environment. In proximity to an unobstructed line of sight with a 5G tower, speeds surpassing 1000 Mbps become achievable— almost ten times faster than 4G rates. However, these speeds may diminish as the distance from the tower increases or if obstacles obstruct the signal.

Beyond that, 5G’s low latency, high capacity, and enhanced reliability have opened doors to transformative applications across various industries. From the widespread implementation of Internet of Things (IoT) devices to the evolution of smart cities, autonomous vehicles, and advanced healthcare solutions, 5G is not just about speed but about revolutionizing the way people live and work. This paradigm shift in connectivity is enabling innovations that promise to reshape industries, drive efficiencies, and create novel experiences, making 5G a cornerstone for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA): FWA has become a mainstream service, serving as a key mode for home broadband access on 5G networks. With its swift deployment, excellent user experience, and low investment requirements, FWA is outpacing other home broadband methods in many countries. It proves to be the optimal choice for operators looking to rapidly expand their user base, achieve business success, and meet the social responsibility of providing universal home broadband coverage. Industry predictions anticipate a significant surge in 5G FWA users, projecting an increase from 10 million to 50 million in the next five years. Recognizing this growth momentum, an increasing number of 5G operators are expediting the deployment of 5G FWA services.

Enhanced Mobile Broadband: The completion of Release 15 in 2018 marked a significant milestone for the formalization of 5G standards, including specifications for eMBB services. eMBB in 5G brings about an elevated internet experience characterized by greater speed and enhanced quality. Indoors, users can achieve remarkable speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s, while outdoor speeds can reach up to 300 Mbit/s.

Massive M2M/IoT: This segment is characterized by the interconnection of numerous devices, particularly those with industrial applications, prioritizing low power consumption and necessitating a stable and reliable connection. Meeting the objectives of this specialized segment is frequently accomplished through the deployment of private 5G mobile networks. Industries are increasingly adopting private 5G networks to facilitate seamless communication among a multitude of devices, ensuring efficiency, reliability, and the ability to support mission-critical applications.

 Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications: This specialized feature ensures unprecedented reliability and minimal communication delay, opening doors to applications where split-second responsiveness is critical: from enabling real-time control in industries to facilitating the deployment of autonomous vehicles.

 

Spectrum Allocations

For a successful 5G launch, GSMA stated that each operator requires 100 MHz of spectrum. Many operators chose the mid-band, specifically 3.5 GHz to 3.7 GHz, for their first commercial 5G networks.

Among key markets like China, Brazil, Germany, India, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, S&P Global’s findings unveiled that South Korea stands out with the highest MHz of spectrum and active towers relative to mobile subscriptions, placing its mobile subscribers at the forefront of 5G advancements.

Low-band Spectrum: Sub-1 GHz spectrum, with robust propagation characteristics, is vital for coverage in sparsely populated areas and indoor coverage in densely built-up regions.

Mid-band Spectrum: Essential for high-capacity city-wide 5G, mid-band spectrum is projected to contribute over USD 610 billion to global GDP by 2030. It is recommended that all countries plan to allocate 2 GHz of mid-band spectrum by 2030 to meet 5G requirements.

mmWave Spectrum: As the demand for 5G FWA grows, operators may turn to mmWave spectrum to uphold FWA service quality while preserving network capacity. Unlocking ultra-high speeds and minimal latencies relies on mmWave spectrum access. Governments and regulators are advised to make an average of 5 GHz of high-band spectrum available per country by 2030 to meet increasing demand.

 

5G Standalone

Ready for widespread commercial adoption, 5G SA promises an unparalleled user experience, differentiated SLAs, and energy efficiency, positioning itself as a pivotal growth engine for operators.

The primary drivers compelling CSPs toward 5G SA implementations are B2B vertical use cases with lucrative, revenue-focused business models. To achieve success, establishing an optimal network infrastructure—from RAN to Core—through a unified converged backhaul transport network is imperative. CSPs collaborate closely with vendors to integrate new network technologies, injecting agility into their existing operations through proactive monitoring and analytics in RAN, transport, and the 5G Core network.

While most 5G SA deployments have occurred in developed economies, Counterpoint Research anticipates a surge in network rollouts in emerging markets, facilitating the ongoing shift from 5G NSA to 5G SA.

Noteworthy 5G SA launches have already taken place in major markets like the USA and mainland China, as well as in Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, and Singapore. In 2023, notable standalone network deployments include du, Zain KSA, and etisalat by e& in the MENA region, along with Orange and Telefónica in Spain, and Vodafone in the UK.

 

5G Advanced

5G Advanced, a pivotal component of the anticipated 3GPP Release 18 set for 2024, marks the next significant leap in the 5G era. This advanced iteration introduces innovative wireless technologies that fortify the foundation of the 5G system, focusing on speed improvement, expanded coverage, enhanced mobility, and increased power efficiency.

In a ground-breaking collaboration, du and Huawei unveiled the world’s first 5G-Advanced (5G-A) demonstration villa in October 2023. This futuristic showcase exemplifies the potential of smart home living, driven by an impressive 10Gbps network, offering capabilities such as 8k viewing, 3D displays, naked-eye 3D, and virtual reality (XR) gaming. The 5G-A villa underscores the limitless possibilities that deterministic experience technology brings to future households, highlighting how FWA will serve as a significant tool for operators in rapidly expanding their user base.

At the 17th Telecom Review Leaders’ Summit, industry experts from leading telecom companies, technology providers, and regulatory bodies emphasized the transformative impact of 5G Advanced across various sectors. They collectively declared 2024 as the inaugural year of the 5G-A era in the Middle East, showcasing the revolutionary initiatives that will set the stage for this transformative phase.

The original article was published by Telecom Review.