5G connections to hit 1 billion this year, and will double by 2025

5G uptake proceeding faster than prior-generation mobile technology, the GSMA says, but most connections are for lower-band spectrum that does not support the most advanced capabilities.

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5G connections will represent one-fifth of all worldwide mobile connections as of this year, putting those connections above the 1 billion mark for the first time, and that number will double by 2025, according to the GSMA (GSM Association).

The GSMA’s Mobile Economy Report, published Wednesday, also said that 5G penetration is moving faster than either of the two previous major generations of mobile networking technology — while neither 3G nor 4G topped 2.2% of mobile connections until more than a year and a half after their introduction, 5G has already accounted for 5.5% in that time frame.

There are currently almost 200 live 5G networks in 70 different countries, according to the GSMA report, which credits high demand for the rapid pace of the rollout.

“Momentum has been boosted by factors including innovative plans, video streaming services, rising 5G handset sales, and network coverage expansion,” said GSMA CTO officer Alex Sinclair, in a statement.

By 2025, GSMA projects, nearly two-thirds of North America’s mobile connections will use 5G as their primary connectivity standard. This is a costly endeavor for telecom providers, according to the report, which said that fully 98% of mobile capital expenditure over the next five years will go toward 5G deployment. To help address 5G deployment costs, the report added, carriers will look to Open RAN (open radio access network) technology, which provides for interoperability standards for telecom equipment. That lets buyers mix and match different types of radio gear, potentially limiting their costs by encouraging more competition among vendors.

Tracking 5G deployment has, in the past, been a complicated enterprise — US carriers and industry associations are eager to claim nationwide coverage and trumpet the fact that “5G is here,” but 5G is not a monolithic network design. The national coverage represents 5G operating in the mid- and low-band spectrum, not the very high, “millimeter-wave” spectrum that the standard requires for many of its most show-stopping capabilities, like gigabit throughput and massive MIMO. Millimeter-wave deployments are still highly limited, generally to select urban core areas.

Mid- and low-band 5G still represent a substantial improvement over LTE, however, and US carriers have eagerly snapped up licenses for use of the airwaves in both areas, underscoring their desire to roll out 5G as quickly as possible. One FCC auction for 5G spectrum set the US record by taking in nearly $81 billion, and a similar auction that concluded in December saw the carriers spend almost $22 billion more.

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