5G has garnered mainstream adoption in 2023. The technology was first launched in South Korea and the US four years ago. In other markets such as India, it has been launched only recently; yet, the speed of network roll-out has been exemplary. According to the latest data by General Services Administration, 543 operators worldwide are investing in 5G, while 265 of them have launched 5G services commercially. Of these, 162 are in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region, 62 in Asia Pacific (APAC) and 41 in the Americas. On the demand side, the Ericsson Mobility Report finds that global 5G subscriptions grew by 175 million to 1.3 billion in the second quarter of 2023. India accounted for most of the net addition of 7 million during the period, followed by China (5 million) and the US (3 million). Meanwhile, governments and international standardisation bodies have begun exploring 6G frameworks and opportunities.
A status update of 5G adoption in India and abroad, and the growing momentum towards 6G…
India spearheads 5G roll-out
India boasts the second-largest 5G network in the world within one year of the launch of services in the country. As of August 2023, telecom operators have set up a total of 338,572 5G sites nationwide. 5G subscriptions in India reached nearly 10 million by the end of 2022 and are estimated to account for about 57 per cent of mobile subscriptions in the country by the end of 2028, making it the fastest-growing 5G region globally. The leading telecom incumbents, Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel, cumulatively cover 10,000 cities with their 5G network. Jio’s 5G service is available in over 96 per cent of the census towns in India within one year of launch. The operator claims this to be the fastest-ever 5G roll-out of this scale anywhere in the world. Jio plans to provide pan-India 5G coverage by December 2023, while Airtel is aiming for a blanket availability by March next year.
According to the latest data by 5G Americas, North America recorded an impressive 151 million 5G connections as of June 2023. The 5G penetration rate in the region reached an exceptional 40 per cent, with a growth rate of 25.5 per cent in the first half of 2023. As of April 2023, 5G network access was available in 503 cities in the US, the highest in any country worldwide. Projections indicate that North America’s 5G connections will reach a remarkable 669 million by 2028. 5G adoption rates are expected to reach 59 per cent in the US and 34 per cent in Canada by the end of 2023.
In contrast, only 29 5G networks were deployed in Latin America and the Caribbean as of June 2023. However, the region is witnessing steady progress with countries assigning spectrum for 5G network build-out. As per estimates by 5G Americas, Latin America’s 5G base will triple over from 2022 to reach 62 million accesses by 2023-end. Most of the 5G adoption is being driven by Brazil, followed by Chile and Puerto Rico. The entity forecasts that 5G is on track to reach 501 million connections across Latin America by the end of 2028.
Many of the advanced markets in the APAC region have been frontrunners in terms of the 5G roll-out. South Korea was the first country to deploy a nationwide 5G network in April 2019. Based on the data for the second quarter of 2023 from GSMA Intelligence, South Korea had a total of 31.3 million 5G connections, which accounted for more than 48 per cent of all mobile connections in the country. Meanwhile, China has built the world’s largest 5G network, with more than 2.84 million 5G base stations installed as of May 2023. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology claimed that the country’s 5G network covers 100 per cent of its administrative regions. According to Omdia, China’s 5G subscriptions accounted for more than 60 per cent of the world’s 5G subscriptions as of the first quarter of 2023.
Other early adopters of 5G in the region, such as Japan, Hong Kong and Australia, have all seen a considerable rise in their total 5G connections from those in the previous year. Japan experienced a 76 per cent increase in 5G connections between Q2 of 2022 to Q2 of 2023, to 60.8 million connections. Hong Kong increased by 65 per cent to 4.8 million and Australia had 8.8 million connections, up by almost 40 per cent during the same period. As predicted by GSMA Intelligence, the recent second wave of 5G roll-outs in the region in countries such as Indonesia, India and Malaysia will see APAC becoming one of the largest 5G markets in the world by 2025.
According to the 5G Observatory Report by the European Commission, all European Union (EU) countries now have commercial 5G services available at least in a part of the country. A total of over 310,000 5G base stations are active in the EU and approximately 81 per cent of the region’s population is covered by at least one basic 5G network. The EU’s Digital Decade programme aims to achieve full 5G or 5G-equivalent coverage by 2030. However, according to the first report on the State of Digital Decade recently released by the European Commission, the deployment of 5G stand-alone networks is lagging and 5G is still falling short in quality with regard to end-users’ expectations and industry needs. Additional investments of up to at least EUR 200 billion is needed to ensure full gigabit coverage across the EU as well as 5G coverage in all populated areas.
The Middle East is far ahead of Africa in terms of the 5G adoption. The latest data by Telegeography shows that the region had 31.4 million 5G users as of December 2022. Saudi Arabia constituted the highest share with over 11.2 million subscriptions, more than a quarter of the region’s total wireless sector. It is well ahead of the second-placed South Africa, which had an estimated 5 million 5G subscriptions as of the end of 2022. Many operators in Africa are still developing their business models around 4G. Voice traffic still relies on 2G and 3G networks in many parts of the region. According to a report by Nokia, 5G subscribers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region will grow by 78 million till 2027. In non-GCC Middle Eastern countries and in Africa, 4G will remain dominant until 2027 and 5G deployment will gain momentum over the coming years. Overall, 5G subscribers in MEA are forecast to reach 380 million by 2027.
Race towards 6G
6G is still at the conceptual stage but is expected to launch commercially around 2030. Governments are encouraging the industry to generate as much intellectual property as possible to shape the 6G landscape. Patent filing for 6G and related technologies is increasing exponentially. Some technology giants have already started trials.
The European Commission formally proposed the Smart Networks and Services Joint Undertaking as a legal and funding entity for 6G development with a budget of EUR 900 million for 2021-2027. Simultaneously, the US National Science Foundation announced a new investment of over $37 million to develop next-generation networks. The investment called Resilient and Intelligent Next-Generation Systems, or RINGS, is a public-private partnership that focuses on accelerating research to increase the US’ competitiveness in future network generations.
In India, the government released the Bharat 6G Vision framework in March 2023. The document was soon accepted by the International Telecommunication Union, indicating the country’s crucial role in the development of 6G. India is aiming for a 10 per cent share in global 6G patents by 2030. In China, the progress has already begun to materialise. The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Second Institute conducted the first real-time wireless transmission of its 6G technology. South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT plans to commercialise the initial 6G network service in 2028, two years before its initial schedule. The ministry has launched a feasibility study for R&D on core 6G technologies for a total of KRW 625.3 billion ($481.7 million) to locally produce 6G components and equipment. According to industry reports, the entire APAC region will lead the global 6G market going forward, followed by the US and Europe.