The Covid-19 pandemic has driven the adoption and increased usage of many information and communications technology (ICT) services that have enabled consumers to build a new normal underpinned by connectivity during the lockdown. With this, the critical role of communications service providers in supporting a functioning society with flawless digital communication capabilities in times of crisis has come to the fore.

In its recently released Mobility Report, Ericsson has stated that 83 per cent of the respondents from 11 countries claim that ICT helped them substantially in coping with the lockdown. The results show increased adoption and usage of ICT services, such as e-learning and wellness apps, which have helped consumers adapt to new realities. The perceived impact on daily life ranges across markets based on the level of restrictions imposed. In this scenario, according to the report, around 82 per cent in India believe that at a personal level, life is highly impacted.

The increased data consumption was mainly driven by the increased use of bidirectional remote work-related apps, such as audio-, web-and videoconferencing, entertainment apps, social media and messaging. In some markets, a contributing factor to mobile data traffic growth was service providers making temporary changes to data plans for a certain period of time.

This has also built an exciting foundation for the potential role that 5G could play in enriching services. Although in some world markets 5G subscription growth has slowed down as a result of the pandemic, this is outweighed by other markets where it is accelerating, which led Ericsson to raise its forecast of global 5G subscriptions at the end of 2020.

Data on the rise – Trends in India

The Ericsson Mobility Report suggests that India’s traffic growth continued its upward trajectory and it is now the region with the highest usage per smartphone per month. The average monthly mobile data usage per smartphone in the country continues to show a robust growth, boosted by the rapid adoption of 4G. Further, low prices of mobile broadband services, affordable smartphones and people’s changing video viewing habits have continued to drive monthly usage growth in the region. As per the report, only 4 per cent of households have fixed broadband, making smartphones the only way to access the internet in many cases.

Mobile data traffic

While the total global mobile data traffic is projected to grow by a factor close to five to reach 164 EB per month in 2025, India is projected to triple the total traffic to reach 21 EB per month in 2025.

This comes on the back of high growth in the number of smartphone users, including rising numbers in rural areas, and an increase in the average usage per smartphone. Further, the report highlights that a total of around 410 million additional smartphone users are expected in the country by 2025. Even if the traffic per existing smartphone user continues to grow significantly over time, the increase in the traffic per smartphone is expected to moderate as more consumers acquire smartphones. The average traffic per smartphone is expected to increase to around 25 GB per month in 2025.

Mobile subscriptions

As per the report, there are currently around 8 billion mobile subscriptions across the globe, which is estimated to increase to 8.9 billion by the end of 2025. Of this, 88 per cent will be for mobile broadband. However, this is a slightly lower share than what was previously forecast, due to a slower decline in 2G (GSM/EDGE-only) subscriptions, mainly in India.

LTE remains the dominant technology in India, accounting for 49 per cent of mobile subscriptions in 2019. According to the report, LTE subscriptions are forecast to increase from 550 million in 2019 to 820 million in 2025, increasing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7 per cent. With this, LTE will continue to be dominant, representing 64 per cent of mobile subscriptions in 2025.

Even though India is yet to commence 5G services, Ericsson forecasts that 5G will represent around 18 per cent of mobile subscriptions in the country at the end of 2025. Mobile broadband technologies accounted for 58 per cent of the mobile subscriptions in 2019 and this is predicted to reach 82 per cent by 2025. Further, the total number of mobile broadband subscriptions is set to exceed 1 billion by 2025. The number of smartphone subscriptions increased to 620 million in 2019 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 9 per cent, reaching 1 billion by 2025.

Global 5G outlook

Despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, globally, service providers continued to switch on 5G, and more than 75 of them have now announced commercial 5G service launch. With this, Ericsson increased its forecast estimate of the number of 5G subscriptions to about 190 million by the end of 2020.

This is mainly due to faster uptake in China than expected. For other parts of the world, slight downward adjustments have been made due to the pandemic effect. The report has slightly decreased its 5G subscriptions forecast for 2020 and 2021 in North America, compared to previous estimates. Both Europe and North America are expected to reach the same 5G subscription figures by 2025 as previously forecast.

Over the forecast period, 5G subscription rate is expected to be significantly higher than that of LTE. Key factors are China’s earlier engagement with 5G compared to 4G (LTE), as well as the earlier availability of devices from several vendors. By the end of 2025, around 2.8 billion 5G subscriptions are estimated globally, accounting for around 30 per cent of all mobile subscriptions at that time.

However, LTE will remain the dominant mobile access technology by subscription during the forecast period. It is projected to peak in 2022 at 5.1 billion subscriptions and decline to around 4.4 billion subscriptions by the end of 2025 as more subscribers are expected to migrate to 5G.

Network coverage

The momentum continues in the build-out of 4G (LTE) networks. The report suggests that the global 4G population coverage was around 80 per cent at the end of 2019 and is supposed to reach over 90 per cent by 2025.

On the 5G front, the report added that the 5G launch and deployment momentum has continued with more than 75 5G commercial launches across the world. The global 5G population coverage was around 5 per cent at the end of 2019, which is estimated to reach 65 per cent by 2025.

According to the report, on an  average, 16 per cent of smartphone users across five EU markets (Sweden, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) and 41 per cent in India and China indicate that they plan to upgrade to 5G as soon as the crisis subsides. The survey also reveals that current 5G users carry out more activities online than 4G users, such as grocery shopping, streaming videos and playing games.

Indispensable network

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact on people and their daily lives, but consumers see resilient networks as a vital help in coping with everyday life. In markets with limited penetration of fixed residential networks, the mobile broadband network was especially valued. As per Ericsson’s report, in India, 33 per cent claim that mobile broadband is more important than fixed broadband, as 37 per cent only, or most often, rely on mobile broadband to connect at home.