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5 predictions about 5G adoption in 2021 and beyond

You can distill the biggest predictions about the future of 5G into one big prediction: By 2025, 5G will start living up to some of the hype we heard five years earlier.

5G is picking up speed, both figuratively and literally. The future of 5G is bright, if the latest predictions prove true. In 2020, Apple released the first iPhones to support 5G connectivity, working with both mmWave and sub-6 GHz 5G. AT&T and Verizon both announced that their 5G service is available nationwide, with Verizon also indicating that its 5G Ultra Wideband service (up to 4 Gbps) is available in parts of 71 cities. T-Mobile, which acquired Sprint in April 2020, added 2,000 towns and cities to its 5G network with the launch of its independent architecture. This increased the total of cities covered to over 7,500.

But the more exciting aspects of 5G are yet to come, as the collection of technologies known as 5G become an integral part of the retail experience, fixed wireless access, manufacturing, healthcare, mobility -- and woven throughout, the Internet of Things (IoT).

First, though, consider the scope of the overall growth. The 2020 Ericsson Mobility Report forecasts 5G subscriptions to reach 2.8 billion globally by the end of 2025, accounting for about 30% of total mobile subscriptions. (It should be noted that while Ericsson as a communications technology provider has a vested interest in painting a rosy picture of 5G, its oft-cited Mobility Report is well respected.) The uptake rate of 5G subscriptions, the report notes, is anticipated to be much higher than it was for 4G. In the second quarter of 2020 alone, 5G subscriptions with a 5G-capable device grew by around 50 million to reach around 80 million.

According to International Data Corp., the number of 5G connections will increase from approximately 10 million in 2019 to 1.01 billion in 2023, reflecting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 217.2%. IDC predicts that by 2023, 5G will account for 8.9% of all mobile phone connections.

GSMA Intelligence puts 5G growth at 1.8 billion 5G connections by 2025, led by Asia and the United States.

Regardless of the numbers realized, the growth will come at great cost. McKinsey and Co. predicts that by 2030 only one-quarter of the world's population will have access to high-band 5G coverage, and that the rollout will cost $700 billion to $900 billion. That means that while 5G coverage will be greatly expanded, that expansion will cover much of the edge. "Given the magnitude of the investment required, connectivity providers will continue to face a tough road. Many of them are already struggling to meet shareholder demands while considering capital investments to enhance their networks," states the February 2020 McKinsey Global Institute report, "Connected world: An evolution in connectivity beyond the 5G revolution."

How retail with benefit from 5G

Retail is expected to be one of the greatest beneficiaries of 5G by the end of the decade. Especially in more populous areas where 5G coverage is expected to flourish, 5G is expected to complement smart retail technology, such as shelf sensors, cashier-less checkout and QR codes.

IHS Markit explains in its November 2019 report how 5G will contribute to the global economy. The report states that  brick-and-mortar retailers could use 5G -- in conjunction with ultra-high definition (UHD) video, virtual reality and augmented reality -- to differentiate themselves in digital signage as a way of competing more effectively with online shopping. That would come in the form of greater in-store digital interaction with customers.

Forrester Research says that the benefit to retail will come in the form of building blocks "to frictionless end-to-end consumer experiences in the form of enhanced mobile broadband; massive machine-type communications (MTC) and ultra-reliable, low-latency communications." MTC provides connections to numerous devices that intermittently transmit small amounts of traffic. 5G mobile broadband will also facilitate virtual and remote support before, during and after a sale, including VR and AR services, smart screens, and mobile cloud services, says Forrester.

5G communications will also boost retail supply chain transparency and efficiency as IoT sensors become ubiquitous, says Forrester. The IoT market in North America should hit 5.9 billion connections by 2025, according to GSMA.

5G business growth
5G's growth opens the door for new business opportunities.

Demand is building for 5G manufacturing

Using analytics, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics in smart factories can have a major impact on overall plant performance, says McKinsey. The findings show that smart factories can improve operational efficiency at every stage of production -- both on a single assembly line, as well as across multiple facilities. Industry will increasingly do this using low-latency and private 5G networks, according to analysts.

As industries consider their 5G options, they'll have the option of building and controlling a private 5G network using their own spectrum, or to procure a network slice from a provider's public 5G wireless network. By 2030, more than 1,000 business and government organizations will have deployed private 5G networks, according to Chris Antlitz, principal analyst at Technology Business Research. But because a factory overhaul to accommodate 5G for automation could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, only the largest customers will use private networks in the short term, he said.

The GDP impact of connectivity in manufacturing could reach $400 billion to $650 billion by the end of the decade, according to McKinsey.

5G will change healthcare from head to toe

5G will certainly revolutionize every aspect of healthcare, from supply chain optimization to remote diagnostics to electronic medical records management. PwC doesn't expect extensive deployment until 2025 in many markets. (It notes, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic may well accelerate this.) When widespread deployment does occur, PwC foresees 5G-compatible devices being used to monitor bed occupancy levels, the movement of physicians, nurses, and patients around the hospital, and wearable medical devices.

The biggest change will come through haptic communications and what has become known as the Tactile Internet. The International Telecommunication Union describes the Tactile Internet as one that combines ultra-low latency with extremely high availability, reliability and security. The Tactile Internet will enable a physician to perform a procedure on a remote patient. PwC envisions it like this: "The surgeon's movements at one site would be recreated instantaneously by computerized equipment at the other site, an innovation that could particularly benefit patients in rural areas or smaller regions, where surgeons specializing in complex procedures may not be readily available."

5G-enabled healthcare could generate $250 billion to $420 billion in global GDP by 2030, according to McKinsey.

5G use cases
Fixed wireless, sensors and edge computing are all examples of 5G use cases.

Fixed Wireless Access will gain traction

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), which had been eschewed by critics as redundant to fiber, uses 5G to provide broadband internet services to homes who cannot get -- or choose not to get -- wireline service. The main benefit, says GSMA, is that it can deliver average speeds similar to fiber-based services at about one-fourth the cost. "For customers, the advent of 5G means that previously unconnected households and communities will realize the benefits of higher speeds, capacity and bandwidth to support their increasing number of IoT devices," GSMA stated in its November 2019 report, "The Internet of Things in the 5G Era."

FWA has become one of the leading use cases for 5G New Radio. 5G NR is a set of standards that replace the LTE network 4G wireless communications standard. Fiber equivalent bandwidth transmissions are supported by 5G NR for applications such as streaming video and low-bandwidth transmissions in massive (M2M) communication. 5G NR also handles vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) transmissions with an extremely low latency demand.

FWA subscribers will require new customer premises equipment (CPE). 5G CPE shipments for FWA will surpass 1 billion by 2030, representing a 47% CAGR over the next 10 years, according to Counterpoint Research.

5G beyond 2021

5G promises to bring the world to our mobile devices as we walk from point A to point B. However, the real excitement is what 5G brings to intelligent mobility systems -- car sharing services, public transport, V2I and V2V, and shipping and receiving. Add to that list smart cities that can use 5G to improve operational efficiency, share information with the public and improve both the quality of government services and citizen welfare. That includes improving traffic flow.

Given the list of possible uses and benefits of 5G, McKinsey estimates the GDP impact of connectivity in mobility to be $170 billion to $280 billion by 2030.

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