Ericsson is predicting there will be more than half a billion 5G customers by the end of 2022 thanks to the recent momentum behind the technology, including an industry decision to fast track its standardization.
The 3GPP in March agreed to lock down the new radio specifications at the end of this year, six months sooner than originally planned, following pressure from operators and vendors eyeing an early launch of 5G services. (See 3GPP Approves Plans to Fast Track 5G NR and 3GPP Likely to Fast Track 5G NR Specs This Week.)
The decision means the first 5G services based on a standardized version of the technology could appear well before 2020, as previously intended.
"One customer insisted they will start deploying by the end of the year and another wants to do a use case by early 2018," said Hossein Moiin, the chief technology officer of Ericsson rival Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), during a briefing with reporters this week. "For the mobile use case, you will see some deployments in the Far East in 2018."
Now Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) has fueled expectations, arguing that "large-scale" trials and deployments will start in 2019 and that more than half a billion mobile customers will be making use of 5G technology just three years later.
That figure discounts any machine-based connections as well as users of so-called fixed wireless access (FWA) services.
The FWA use case -- which entails using 5G as a "last-mile" replacement for costlier fixed-line technologies -- has gained a lot of traction in North America, where operators including US giant Verizon expect to launch FWA-based 5G services this year.
The 3GPP's decision to speed up new radio development means vendors will be able to start developing standardized radio equipment sooner than they had expected.
Operators taking advantage of this acceleration scheme would be able to launch 5G services based on a so-called "non-standalone" configuration, using the 5G new radio standard in conjunction with an existing 4G network to provide mobile broadband services.
By mid-2018, the 3GPP also plans to finalize work on the "standalone" variant of 5G, which will include a next-generation core network and is deemed a more important development by a number of mobile operators.
But it is the availability of non-standalone 5G that will fuel the take-up that Ericsson is predicting.
Ericsson expects the overall number of mobile subscriptions to grow from about 7.5 billion in 2016 to as much as 9 billion by the end of 2022, when 4G will be the most widely used technology, accounting for about 5 billion subscriptions.
As operators switch off older network technologies, the number of GSM/EDGE-only subscriptions will fall to about 700 million by the same date, according to Ericsson's report.
The vendor's 5G forecast includes a prediction that about 15% of the world's population will be covered by the next-generation technology in 2022.
Unsurprisingly, consumers in "major metro areas" will be the first to benefit, says Ericsson, as operators concentrate on serving the most lucrative markets.
Even in more densely populated communities, however, there is some industry concern about the cost of building 5G networks using very high frequency bands, which will necessitate the rollout of more site equipment.
Operators in Europe seem focused instead of using mid-band airwaves in the 3.5GHz band, and even much lower-range 700MHz frequencies, but Nokia's Moiin harbors reservations about this approach because of the spectrum constraints.
"Extreme broadband is difficult to accomplish with lower bands," he says. "With lower bands you are probably talking about a coverage play but not about capacity."
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading