4G – not 5G – will still rule in 2022, and that’s a good thing

DoT says 4G 5G 2022
Image credit: zaozaa19 | Shutterstock.com

Next week at Mobile World Congress, you’ll likely be bombarded with mobile statistics and forecasts, so here’s an interesting forecast to consider before you collect your badge: the biggest mobile technology in 2022 will be 4G.

Not 5G. 4G.

That’s according to the latest Visual Networking Index [PDF] from Cisco, which was released earlier this week. As usual, the VNI (which covers the period from 2017 to 2022) is jam-packed with mind-spinning stats and forecasts regarding data traffic and usage – for example, mobile devices will be generating almost a zettabyte of data annually by 2022 (specifically, it’ll be 930 exabytes, which is around 10x the amount of global mobile data tracked by the VNI ten years ago). And even that will account for just 20% of global internet traffic.

However, notably, this is the first VNI forecast to include 5G as a wireless access category, now that actual 5G services are being launched and the first handsets will be coming out this year. Cisco reckons that by 2022, 5G globally will reach about 400 million connections. Which sounds like a lot, and it is – but it’s paltry when compared to all the other Gs.

The VNI is forecasting that mobile users will grow from 5 billion in 2017 to 5.7 billion by 2022, while mobile connections (which include IoT-type devices) will rise from 8.6 billion to 12.3 billion. When you break all of that down by the types of wireless technologies that will be in play – 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G and LPWA – it looks like this:

cisco VNI 5G 4G 2022
Image credit: Cisco VNI Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast, 2017-2022

Essentially, 4G is primed for considerable growth in the next few years, from 3 billion connections in 2017 to 6.7 billion in 2022. Meanwhile, its market share will grow from 34.7% to 54.3%. Unsurprisingly, much of that will come at the expense of 2G and 3G, which in 2017 accounted for 33% and 30% of global connections, respectively – those shares will decline by 2022, especially for 2G as more operators make the call to switch off their 2G networks.

Meanwhile, 5G will account for just 3.4% of mobile connections in 2022 (that’s people and IoT connections, remember), the lowest percentage of every other wireless broadband technology – which puts all the “5G is here” hype into a rather jarring perspective.

This isn’t news, by the way – other market forecasts (including those from the GSMA [PDF]) also expect 4G to be the dominant mobile access technology until at least 2025.

Nor is it particularly shocking – 5G is only just getting out of the gate, devices are rare and expensive, and it has several unresolved challenges to overcome in most markets, from spectrum and site acquisition to ill-advised supplier bans. No one (apart from overpaid marketing chiefs) would reasonably expect 5G to go from zero to dominant mobile technology in just three years. Indeed, the VNI white paper expects that some large-scale 5G rollouts won’t happen until after 2022.

Either way, as we’ve said before, operators should expect 4G to do the heavy lifting on their mobile data offerings for the foreseeable future, and should design their platform, service and offload strategies accordingly.

That said, here’s a stat nugget from the VNI worth highlighting – 5G may account for 3.4% of mobile connections in 2022, but it will be generating a hell of a lot more traffic. The report forecasts 5G will account for almost 12% of global mobile data traffic by 2022, which breaks down to an average of 22GB a month. By contrast, 4G connections will average just 8GB a month.

Because that will largely be a product of 5G’s enhanced speed and capacity, Cisco says 5G’s relatively slow ramp-up will actually be a good thing for operators who take the time to develop “a long-term strategy for 5G investment that creates value for customers”, as opposed to operators scrambling to be the first on the block to launch a half-assed 5G service:

The rollout of 4G holds some important lessons. Because the quality of the mobile broadband experience relies heavily on network capability and capacity, network tests and consumer mobile broadband satisfaction tests will be even more important in the 5G world than for 4G or 3G. 5G devices will take time to roll out and become affordable. The most successful LTE operators by subscriptions either quickly moved to price LTE at the same level as 3G after the first launch of the network, or launched LTE at no premium to 3G.

So as you brace for the wave of 5G hype spraying all over Barcelona next week, remember that for all the opportunity that 5G presents, it will take time to get it right – and cellcos will need that time. In the meantime, it’s 4G and Wi-Fi that will rule the roost for years to come.

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