5G wireless may not change everything, as a lot of the hype around this technology loves to promise. But a new report from wireless-infrastrcture provider Ericsson suggests it’s going to make our smartphones even more of a streaming-media time suck, with better video and new temptations such as VR and AR. And those of us in North America will make the move to 5G more rapidly than those elsewhere.
The November 2019 edition of the Ericsson Mobility Report predicts that this next generation of mobile broadband will see its first big year in 2020—and account for almost three quarters of all mobile subscriptions in North America just five years later.
The rest of the world, however, will move more slowly, says Stockholm-based Ericsson, with the next highest 5G adoption rates seen in northeast Asia (56% 5G by 2025) and western Europe (55% by 2025). “Countries within these regions have developed economies, enabling a high adoption rate of information and communications technology,” the report says.
In central and eastern Europe, only 25% of mobile subscriptions will be 5G by 2025, and in the rest of the world, figures are still lower.
That adds up to “only” 2.6 billion 5G subscriptions in 2025, out of 8.9 billion total.
If there’s a global “race to 5G,” as politicians like to say—but this report does not—the figures throughout this 36-page PDF suggest much of the world isn’t following it with an excess of enthusiasm.
Work in progress
A judicious reading of this report offers some key reasons why you might not want to get too giddy about 5G just yet. One is the limits of the 5G circuitry in the early 5G phones now available, which lacks the “more integrated designs, reduced power consumption, and more frequencies and network operation modes” of the second generation of 5G devices coming next year.
Another is the long-term difficulty of building out 5G coverage. Ericsson’s optimistic forecast posits 5G reaching 65% of the world’s population by 2025—but 10% of that will have to come from dynamically sharing spectrum today reserved for 4G LTE.
And most of this 5G coverage will not happen via ultra-fast but short-range millimeter-wave service—the focus of much of the 5G sales pitch in the U.S., even though mm-wave 5G coverage remains vanishingly scarce on the ground.
Outside of dense urban areas, 5G will have to ride on lower-frequency bands that reach farther but don’t offer the gigabit speeds so often touted for 5G.
“It took 4G LTE seven years to get to 65% population coverage, so on paper, a 55-65% 5G target by 2025 (after 6 years) is certainly not unreasonable,” emailed Phil Kendall, director of the service provider group at Strategy Analytics. “Low-band spectrum is going to be key to achieving this.”
Ericsson’s report is, however, quite direct in stating that 5G will drive data usage through the roof.
In North America, it calls for average smartphone data traffic to increase by a factor of more than 5—from 8.5GB per user a month in 2019 to 45GB a month in 2025. Western Europe will take second place in this bandwidth-binge contest, going from 8.8GB to 36GB a month. Worldwide, Ericsson predicts a jump from 7.2GB to 24GB a month.
Ericsson cites real-world data from the South Korean firm SK Telecom, which found that its 5G subscribers used almost three times as much data as their 4G counterparts in September—26.6GB versus 9.5GB.
Streaming video will drive soaring data-usage levels.”
In Ericsson’s analysis, streaming video will drive those soaring data-usage levels. By 2025, the report expects that video will grow by 30% a year to soak up 76% of all mobile traffic. That will be enough to shrink the share of social media, the second-biggest usage category, even though that traffic itself will rise 20% a year in Ericsson’s view.
The video we watch over 5G connections won’t just come at higher resolutions than today—currently, in the U.S., most service plans constrain streaming media to a DVD-like 480p resolution even if the network could support faster streaming. Instead, Ericsson suggests we’ll watch “more immersive formats”: augmented reality and virtual reality.
The report points again to early experiences in Korea: “For example, SK Telecom’s Social VR service enables multiple users to experience sports events and movies together in a virtual environment as if they were in the same physical location.”
Ericsson does not note the parallels between that concept and the concert-going-via-VR experience satirized in Portlandia‘s “Pickathon” episode, nor does it note the difficulty of enjoying VR on the go.
Augmented-reality video, in which “AR” apps overlay content over the real-world scenery—as shown either on your phone’s screen or in head-worn glasses—doesn’t have that hang-up. But it’s also yet to drive much business for SK Telecom: “Present AR services are mostly proof-of-concept services, paving the way for more advanced AR services in the future.”
The notion that 5G will result in more of us walking around with AR and VR headsets may be a bit much to take when we’re already swamped with 5G hype. But give Ericsson’s authors credit for showing this much restraint: The word “6G” appears nowhere in their report.