The rise of mobile-first is potentially good news for 5G

5G mobile first
Image credit: wan wei /

The latest data confirms what RFM’s Digital Life Pie has been indicating for some time: mobile is increasingly the internet access medium of choice in developed markets. And that’s good news for 5G – at least in the longer term – if it can bring truly unlimited mobile data plans to market.

New data from OpenSignal shows that the number of countries where cellular download speeds are faster than Wi-Fi currently stands at 33, and is growing fast. Many of these countries are in emerging markets where poor quality fixed infrastructure combined with relatively recent rollout of cellular coverage has led to mobile taking a substantial lead. This means that in emerging markets, a device with a cellular connection is the only practical way to gain access to the Internet.

This represents a major change from just two years ago when fixed broadband was the first port of call for most activities, with mobile being used when fixed was not available.

Hence, almost all Digital Life activities take place on a smartphone rather than being split between a smartphone and other devices that use a fixed internet connection (tablets, PCs, laptops, TVs etc).

This is why there have been two Digital Life Pies; one for developed markets and one for emerging (or mobile-first) markets. The main difference between the two has been that gaming and social networking have dominated the developed markets pie, while mobile-first markets have been more evenly balanced between the major digital activities.

As mobile connectivity has become closer to fixed and as the average screen size of a smartphone had risen, more activities have migrated onto smartphones. The result has been that the Digital Life pie for developed markets is changing to look more like the mobile-first markets pie.

This makes complete sense when taken into account with the OpenSignal data, which is indicating that cellular is slowly becoming a better Internet connectivity option. There will be some regional variations, but the global trend is quite clear.

The exception is for the enterprise and content creation. There are very few (if any) plans which offer truly unlimited data on cellular networks, and computers consumer vast quantities of data. Hence, as long as there remains no true unlimited connectivity options on the mobile internet, the enterprise is likely to remain predominantly on the fixed internet.

This is good news for proponents of 5G because, in RFM’s opinion, this is a technology that is looking for a use case outside of fixed wireless access in the USA. The main use cases proposed for 5G (connected cars and autonomous driving) do not hold water as, in RFM’s opinion, it could easily be achieved using existing 4G technology.

However, if 5G can make truly unlimited data plans an economic reality once again, then there is scope for it to take off as more and more traffic migrates to mobile. That said, this will be a very long time coming, as 4G is already extremely good, and it will take time for the substantial problems and limitations of 5G to be solved.

Hence, I do not see this as a reason to look more optimistically upon the network infrastructure industry in the short-term, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel should 5G be able to live up to some of its promise.

This article was originally published at RadioFreeMobile

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