What does the future of 5G look like?

Mobile networks have come a long way since the days of 1G. With this technology now in its fifth iteration, Business Leader investigates what the future of 5G looks like.

Is the 5G industry growing?

Phone companies first began rolling out 5g technology back in 2019, and although it offers various performance improvements over its predecessor, 4g, the latter remains the most popular of the two.

According to Statista, the number of 4G subscriptions globally will reach six billion in 2022, whilst the Mobile Economy Report 2022 from the GSMA says 5G connections will surpass one billion in 2022.

However, 2022 has been a year of remarkable growth for the 5G industry so far. For example, at the end of April, the GSA confirmed that the number of commercially available 5G devices surpassed 1000 for the first time, which was a 16.6% rise from the previous quarter.

Joe Barrett, President of the GSA, commented on these figures: “The first quarter of the year was off to a flying start for 5G devices. With the industry breaking through the symbolic barrier of 1000 commercially available devices, we have a clear indicator of 5G’s continued and growing popularity.

“Moreover, based on manufacturers’ statements and the accelerating rate of device release, we are expecting the number of commercial devices to approach the 1,200 mark by the end of the second quarter of 2022. Of perhaps even more significance regarding the health of the 5G industry is the range of form factors and manufacturers entering the market.

“GSA is aware of 191 manufacturers with announced, available or forthcoming devices across 24 different announced form factors, ranging from fixed wireless access devices to vending machines, industrial routers to drones. Of the announced 5G devices, phones remain, by far, the most popular one. GSA has identified 677 announced 5G phones, which is an increase of 34 from February 2022.”

Ann Heyse, Telco Solutions Manager at BICS says the market is growing but points out a key difference for the way 5G networks will be operated.

She said: “It’s growing, but there’s work to be done. The potential of 5G is well documented, and the industry has been very vocal about this potential while laying the groundwork. Now it’s time to deliver on those promises.

“One of the key ways operators are looking to do that is not so much to monetise end-user consumer services as was the case with previous technologies such as 3G and 4G, but rather to leverage the business opportunity for private networks. It’s these private 5G networks that will foster global connectivity and be truly transformative for businesses around the world.”

Are there barriers preventing the rollout of 5G?

Whilst 5G is undoubtedly growing, it’s a wonder it’s yet to overtake its predecessor in popularity, especially considering 5G’s enhanced performance. 5G uses various technologies and much higher radio frequencies for improved speeds, lower congestion and latency than 4G. However, according to Heyse, there are various challenges that are limiting its rollout.

She said: “5G, as transformative as it will be, is still a relatively young technology. As such, some elements, like private networks, are still evolving. One of the biggest barriers is the security and regulation challenges which are still being solved. By their very nature, networks becoming decentralised and less reliant on hardware means that futureproofing against potential cyberattacks needs to be extremely well thought-through and tested before roll-outs. This is where 5G test labs and secure interconnect testing between 5G networks are vital.

“Another challenge is the growing competition for spectrum access. When spectrum is inevitably opened up to private companies, regulators will have to balance this with the needs of consumer 5G. The other point to remember is that as with any new evolution in technologies, it takes time for the full ecosystem to learn and educate – be that around the benefits of 5G, the technical requirements, or the interdependencies between various expertise – regulators, governments, operators and enterprise are all needing to navigate a new era, and this takes some time.”

Despite its challenges, 5G has also grown quicker than 3G or 4G did during the first 18 months of its launch. According to the GSMA, 5G accounted for more than 5.5% of the total number of mobile connections, with 3G and 4G not exceeding 2.2% penetration during the same period. So, if its growth continues along the same trajectory, its future could be very bright.

Will 5G continue to grow?

The GSMA says 5G connections will exceed two billion by 2025, accounting for over a fifth of total mobile connections, whilst more than two in five people globally will live within reach of a 5G network.

Barrett is also confident of the technology’s continued growth.

He said: “With the device ecosystem in such healthy shape, we are expecting continued momentum around new 5G networks, services and subscriptions this year.”

However, Heyse believes what we’re really seeing is the growth of something else.

She said: “While the 5G market is set to expand, we’d argue that what we’re really seeing is a growing market for connectivity. The technology for this may shift over time, whether it’s 5G, 6G, or private spectrum, what is more important is that such connectivity is reliable, secure, and truly global.

“For 5G specifically, expect the biggest area of growth to be private networks. Private networks, favoured for their security and privacy, will be a catalyst for innovation across fields like manufacturing, transport, and healthcare. Such innovation will help 5G fulfil its promise of supporting global connectivity and bring new life to other technologies like IoT and AI.”

According to the Global Suppliers Association, the number of 5G networks reached 200 by the end of 2021, with 5G networks now being present in 87 different countries.

A report from Juniper Research also predicts that 5G networks will account for 77% of global mobile operator revenues by 2026, with revenue totals exceeding $600 billion (£496 billion) by the same time. So, for those who successfully overcome the barriers facing 5G technology, the future looks very bright indeed.