The period after the Covid-19 pandemic has witnessed a paradigm shift towards digitisation, with enhanced penetration in remote areas. Further, the world has entered the 5G era, wherein not only will consumers benefit from new applications, but also businesses and industries will take advantage of new capabilities.

The recent edition of the Ericsson Mo­­bility Report estimates that 5G will ac­c­ount for nearly half of all mobile subscriptions by 2027. On the surface, it see­ms quite strai­ghtforward to expect continued growth of 5G subscriptions, and the­reby traffic-per-device growth. How­ev­er, as 5G population coverage increases, we could expect some new, disruptive ev­ents that take ad­van­tage of 5G capabilities in totally new ways, be it with new devices, bu­siness models or applications.

Moreover, the report states that 5G is estimated to cover over 2 billion people in 2021 with the buildout of 5G networks co­n­tinuing to accelerate, and more than 180 commercial 5G network launches witne­ssed across the world. In fact, 5G is expected to be the fastest deployed mobile communication technology in history, and is forecast to cover about 75 per cent of the world’s population by 2027.

The report further lists the major technological innovations that have enabled mobile networks to support significantly more traffic while consuming only marginally more energy. Through 5G standards and specifications, new innovations are be­ing deployed to not only continue supporting growing data demands, but also to help drive down energy consumption. The radio access network is a key focus area, as it ac­counts for the vast majority of the total en­ergy consumption in mobile networks.

A look at the key findings of the report for India and the world…

5G mobile subscriptions to surpass 4G

As per the report, 5G subscriptions are expected to reach 4.4 billion by the end of 2027. More than 180 service providers have launched commercial 5G services ac­ross the globe, with service providers continuing to switch on 5G. 5G subscriptions grew by 98 million during the third quarter (Q3) of 2021 to around 570 million. By the end of 2021, 5G subscriptions are estimated to reach more than 660 million. Currently, northeast Asia has the highest 5G subscription penetration, followed by North America, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Western Europe. It is projected that in 2027, North America will have the highest 5G penetration at 90 per cent.

5G subscription uptake is expected to be faster than that of 4G following the latter’s launch in 2009, reaching 1 billion su­b­scriptions over two years sooner than 4G did. By the end of 2027, 5G subscriptions are expected to grow to 4.4 billion globally, accounting for 49 per cent of all mobile subscriptions. In fact, 5G will become the dominant mobile access technology by su­bscriptions across major parts of the world in 2027.

In contrast, 4G is expected to remain the dominant technology in 2027 in the In-dia region. However, 4G subscriptions are forecast to drop from 790 million in 2021 to 710 million in 2027, showing an annual average decline of 2 per cent. Thus, 4G subscriptions are expected to decrease from 68 per cent of mobile subscriptions in 2021 to 55 per cent in 2027, as subscribers mi­grate to 5G. 5G will represent around 39 per cent of mobile subscriptions in India at the end of 2027, estimated at about 500 million subscriptions. Further, the number of smartphone subscriptions in India is expected to be 810 million at the end of 2021 and is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7 per cent, reaching over 1.2 billion by 2027.

Broadband trends

Today, there are around 8.1 billion mobile subscriptions. This figure is estimated to increase to around 8.9 billion by the end of 2027, of which 92 per cent will be for mo­bile broadband. Mobile broadband subscriptions currently make up 84 per cent of all mobile subscriptions.

Subscriptions associated with smartphones continue to rise, and are estimated to reach 6.3 billion by the end of 2021, ac­counting for about 77 per cent of all mobile phone subscriptions. This is forecast to reach 7.7 billion in 2027, accounting for around 86 per cent of all mobile subscriptions at that time.

Subscriptions for fixed broadband are expected to grow around 4 per cent annually through 2027. Fixed wireless access (FWA) connections are anticipated to show strong growth of 17 per cent annually through 2027.

In India, smartphone subscriptions accounted for 70 per cent of total mobile subscriptions in 2021 and are projected to constitute around 94 per cent in 2027, driven by rapid smartphone adoption in the country.

Smartphones and video driving mobile data traffic

Today, mobile networks carry almost 300 times more mobile data traffic than in 2011. Mobile network data traffic grew 42 per cent between Q3 2020 and Q3 2021. Total global mobile data traffic, excluding traffic generated by FWA, is estimated to reach around 65 exabytes (EB) per month by the end of 2021, and is projected to grow by a factor of around 4.4 to reach 288 EB per month in 2027. Including FWA traffic, this takes the total mobile network traffic to around 80 EB per mo­n­th by the end of 2021, and 370 EB per month by the end of 2027.

Smartphones and video drive up mobile data traffic. In 2027, 5G networks will carry 62 per cent of the world’s smartphone traffic. The monthly global average usage per smartphone will reach 11.4 GB by the end of 2021 and is forecast to reach 41 GB by the end of 2027. Smartphones continue to be at the epicentre of this development, as they generate most of the mobile data traffic today – about 97 per cent, a share that is projected to increase throughout 2027.

Currently, video traffic is estimated to account for 69 per cent of all mobile data traffic, a share that is forecast to increase to 79 per cent in 2027. Populous markets that launch 5G early are likely to lead traffic growth. By 2027, 5G networks are ex­pected to carry 62 per cent of total mo­bile data traffic.

In India, Covid-19 increased reliance on telecom networks to fulfil personal and business needs, be it remote health consultations, online ordering, online education, content consumption or videoconferencing. The average traffic per smartphone in the India region is the second-highest globally, and is projected to grow to around 50 GB per month in 2027. Competitive pricing by service providers for subscription packages, affordable smartphones and in­creased time spent online all contribute to monthly usage growth in the region.

Total mobile data traffic in India has grown from 9.4 EB per month in 2020 to 12 EB per month in 2021, and is projected to increase by more than four times to reach 49 EB per month in 2027. This deve­lopment will be largely driven by high gro­wth in the number of smartphone users, including growth in rural areas, and an inc­rease in average usage per smartphone.

Ensuring sustainability

With mobile data traffic expected to grow by over four times to reach 288 EB per month in 2027, it is a constant concern for service providers to simultaneously reduce en­ergy consumption and contribute to­war­­ds reducing carbon emissions. While data traffic has grown exponentially over the last 10 years, the energy consumption  of the global network of service providers has risen by just 64 per cent, from 91 TWh to an estimated 150 TWh. This illus­trates th­at there is only a weak correlation between traffic growth and increa­s­ed energy consumption.

The deployment of every new mobile generation since 3G has led to concerns about increasing mobile network energy consumption, and 5G is no exception. There are fears that if 5G is deployed in the same way as previous generations to meet the rising traffic demands, the energy consumption of mobile networks will increase dramatically. However, while historical figures show a rise in global energy consumption over time, it is not as significant as some early expectations. Utilising efficiency gains from new mobile generations, combined with new innovative operational approaches, has been critical in keeping network energy consumption at a manageable level.

To meet the industry aspiration for net zero carbon emissions, an approach that br­eaks the upward trajectory of global network energy consumption is required. Lea­ding service providers are addressing this challenge by applying a holistic network approach that will gradually reduce energy consumption. This is achieved by combining network modernisation with new features and capabilities that can be applied in network design, build and energy-smart operations. In addition to this holistic app­roach, the switch to renewable energy sour­ces is critical for achieving an overall reduction in carbon emissions.