5G might be the future, but there's growth yet in 4G.
According to a GSMA study earlier this year, 4G is the world's dominant mobile technology, accounting for 52% of global connections as of December 2019.
Despite the onward march of 5G, the GSMA expects LTE's share of the global subs to rise to 56% by 2025.
It is in emerging markets in particular that 4G's role is growing.
Even China. Despite its heavy push on 5G, China is still clocking up 4G subscriber growth. This year it has added 42.3 million 4G subs, or 3.4% of the total.
GSMA predicts China will add 260 million customers over the period 2018-2022.
A big part of that will come from the migration of the huge 2G legacy base of 273 million subs.
It's not clear why the 2G population is so high. Officially, 4G networks reached 95% of all administrative villages and 99% of the population two years ago.
But analysts suggest that coverage isn't as seamless in rural areas as government figures claim.
In many rural areas, 4G coverage is patchy compared to the old GSM network. Additionally, some customers in remote China are probably deterred by 4G handset and data costs.
Another Asian country banking on 4G to narrow the digital divide is Indonesia.
It's at the other end of the 5G rollout timetable from China, unlikely to deploy any 5G for at least two years.
That's because the island nation, with 345 million mobile subs, is still in the 4G growth phase. Just two years ago 2G and 3G accounted for 69% of all connections.
Today, LTE still isn't available in many areas, but the government is promising nationwide connectivity in the next two years.
Communication and Information Minister Johnny G. Plate told a forum last weekend that by "the end of 2022 at the latest, 4G services will be available across the country."
The biggest holdups to growth are the lack of spectrum and the overdue market consolidation.
GSMA forecasts that by 2025 Indonesia's 4G population will reach 361 million, or 74% of total connections.
One factor impacting both Indonesia and China is the 4G cost advantage over 5G.
Deployed 5G might be massively more efficient on a per bit and per hertz basis, but 5G equipment, energy and operating costs are way above LTE.
For that reason it could be some time before we see huge 5G rollouts in Asian emerging markets outside China.
- Indonesia 5G: Too many operators, not enough spectrum
- Xcel ditches WiMAX, eyes public and private LTE
- Singapore gets taste of 5G as Malaysia dithers
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading