5G adoption moves too slowly to overtake 3G in 2020

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In 2020, 3G will still be more popular than 5G. That’s according to mobile analytics company Opensignal in its mobile network experience predictions for next year.

“In the world of telecoms, 2019 will probably be remembered as the year 5G got serious, going from a few initial test networks to reach millions of users in dozens of markets worldwide,” says Peter Boyland, senior analyst at Opensignal.

“So, what can we expect from the next generation, and the rest of the mobile world, in 2020? We’ve had a look into our crystal ball to bring you our top predictions for the coming year,” he says.

Opensignal’s data shows that 27.2% of its global user base has never connected to 4G and instead relies on 3G.

“And this is not just in emerging markets,” Boland says. “Our recent analysis in Germany found that up to half of users don’t connect to 4G networks. 5G adoption is moving too slowly to overtake 3G adoption in just one year, anywhere in the world.”

Distant dream

Speaking about the African market, Boyland says: “Even in the most advanced African markets, we rarely see 4G availability scores over the 80% mark, meaning that the priority for most operators on the continent remains the roll-out of their 4G networks.

“Nonetheless, some operators in more mature markets, such as MTN in South Africa, are preparing to test 5G networks – suggesting we could see a commercial launch in a major city on the continent as early as 2020. But for the vast majority of Africa's mobile users, 5G remains a pretty distant dream.”

In SA, telecoms regulator the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) this month published the long-awaited information memorandum on the licensing process for the assignment of the International Mobile Telecommunications spectrum, or what is also referred to as high-demand spectrum.

This spectrum will enable local mobile operators to deploy 5G technology.

“As a general rule, we see many more 3G users in less developed countries, where operators are still rolling out 4G networks, while more advanced countries in Europe, Asia and North America have much higher proportion of 4G users,” Boyland says.

“However, in some countries like Germany, for example, they stand out with one of the highest proportions of 3G users – out of our user base – compared to the other developed countries.”

Opensignal’s analysis shows that South Korea is currently leading in terms of 5G subscribers and devices, but it is seeing some of the fastest speeds in the US.

Boyland explains this is a result of widespread US launches using the mmWave spectrum bands, which offer blisteringly fast speeds but limited network propagation.

“The US is in dire need of lower bandwidth spectrum to accelerate 5G coverage, and this issue with spectrum availability is likely to be an ongoing theme globally as 5G becomes more ubiquitous.”

Full experience

Opensignal also predicts 4G will remain an essential foundation for 5G services in 2020.

The mobile analytics firm recently found just 1% of speed tests its US users conducted from 5G New Radio (5G NR) enabled devices used an active 5G connection, compared with 20% of speed tests conducted in early 5G leader South Korea.

Much like the issue with non-standalone 5G networks, this means the user is not getting the full 5G experience, and this issue will continue in 2020 unless more 5G NR devices become available, it says.

The firm also believes spectrum availability will have a huge impact on the 5G experience.

“Our analysis shows that the frequencies used for 4G can have a strong impact on the mobile network experience,” Boyland says.

He points out the majority of early 5G launches have utilised mid-band spectrum, in the two 2GHz to 4GHz ranges.

These bands are ideal for urban roll-out, offering a good mix of data capacity, range and in-building penetration.

“But in some markets, particularly the US, availability of this spectrum is scarce, meaning operators are using higher mmWave bands. Markets using mmWave bands will struggle to offer wide coverage for 5G. Unless both mid-band spectrum and mmWave spectrum is available, the 5G experience will be incomplete,” Boyland says.

Easing congestion

Opensignal also predicts that using 5G to ease congestion on 4G networks will become a key operator use case come next year.

It points out current 5G networks have limited reach, meaning the vast majority of users are still relying heavily on 4G.

“And as data demand continues to rise, we are seeing signs of increased congestion on 4G networks. As 5G networks become more ubiquitous and devices more widespread, operators will look to move their heavy data users onto 5G, to improve the mobile network experience on 4G,” Boyland says.

“The 5G experience will depend on the type of spectrum used. Consumers connecting to 5G on low-band spectrum will not have a dramatically better experience than 4G, but consumers will still see 5G in their phone’s status bar.

“Those using mmWave will see extremely fast speeds, but very little coverage. But all kinds of network experience will be called 5G,” he concludes.

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