In 2020, 5G made big strides around the world. Even with a new generation on the way, 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) continues to be an integral part of our society and the leading contributor to mobile interconnections.
Shouldering major tasks
In 2020, the number of LTE connections increased by 9.5% year-on-year to 4.48 billion, hitting yet another record high. LTE now accounts for 55.87% of the total number of global mobile connections and covers 86.77% of the world's population. Moreover, LTE subscriptions are rising across the globe, especially in Africa.
Even with the advances that 5G offers, voice calls are still important as ever. This basic need requires a large-scale Voice over LTE (VoLTE) network as a 5G voice foundation that provides continuous coverage. By 2020, there was a total of 224 commercial VoLTE networks in the world. In terms of connections, VoLTE has 2.8 billion with a year-on-year increase of 27.3%, accounting for 36% of total mobile connections. With the acceleration of 5G commercial use, VoLTE will enter a new period of rapid development. It is estimated that VoLTE will take up three quarters of 4G/5G connections by 2025.
In July 2020, 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) announced that the RAN6 working group, responsible for 2G and 3G protocol work, was formally closed, marking the end of 2G and 3G networks. It is estimated that 54 2G/3G networks will be shut down by 2021, and the number will reach 132 by 2025. What these two generations left, such as voice and Internet of Things (IoT) services, will be carried on by 4G and 5G.
Having offered much to the world, 4G LTE still plays an important role and will continue to be utilized for years to come.
Besides connecting people, 4G LTE now faces another huge challenge: connecting everything.
In May 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of China released a notice on advancing the mobile IoT. This notice specified the goal of mobile IoT: a coordinated ecosystem based on Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), 4G, and 5G to take over 2G/3G IoT services. Shortly afterwards, China Mobile, a telecom operator in China, claimed that it would stop new 2G IoT subscriptions by the end of 2020. As a result, hundreds of millions of 2G/3G IoT subscriptions will be transferred to LTE.
The number of global NB-IoT connections has doubled within only one year, hitting 180 million in 2020. Such a robust growth was attributed not only to the explosive increase in connections and applications in China, but also to booming markets in other areas across the world. For example, Saudi Arabian electricity companies, Swedish electricity meter vendors, and Italian gas meter vendors all managed to connect over one million devices with their NB-IoT. Moreover, Deutsche Telekom, a German telecom operator, signed NB-IoT roaming agreements with several European operators, making NB-IoT roaming available across 18 European countries.
A continuing exponential NB-IoT growth can be reasonably projected in the future amid favorable policies and rising interests from markets.
Right from its inception, NB-IoT has been positioned as the prelude and foundation of 5G IoT. Its standards continue to evolve as 5G is embraced: 3GPP Release 13 specified NB-IoT basics; Release 14 increased its data rates and enhanced multi-carrier transmission; Release 15 shortened the delay and lowered power consumption; Release 16 further enhanced its performance and allowed access to the 5G core network; and Release 17 defined enhanced NB-IoT.
At the ITU-R WP5D meeting on July 9th, 2020, the International Telecommunication Union announced that NB-IoT (submitted by China and 3GPP) is now officially recognized as a 5G standard. This recognition legitimates NB-IoT as a preferred technology for Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) in 5G. NB-IoT terminals that have already been deployed can smoothly connect to 5G networks. Investments in NB-IoT will thereby be protected and continue to create value.
In addition to connecting everything with NB-IoT, LTE is increasingly present in home broadband. In 2020, the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) 4G-5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) Forum was established, bringing together 27 partners and members by now. This forum aims to encourage the global adoption of 4G/5G FWA, which can be more easily deployed and is expected to bridge the digital divide by bringing broadband to everyone. Currently, more than 30 countries around the world have included FWA in their national broadband plans. By allocating spectrums, offering subsidies, and allowing flexible access to infrastructures, countries are fast-tracking their broadband development.
Growing even stronger
LTE has never stopped progressing. To establish more connections and to improve user experience together with 5G, LTE continues to innovate and grow.
Covering more than 86% of the world's population and providing over half of the mobile connections, 4G LTE will undoubtedly remain as the mobile network foundation to connect the world in the following years. With operators investing in 5G, 4G will still constitute a major source of revenue. 4G connections have exceeded 70% of the total mobile market in North America, China, and West Europe. Even with that penetration, there are still vast opportunities for 4G to tap into, as the technology has a 66.21% share in the Americas, 61.69% in Asia, 61.63% in Europe, and only 15.49% in Africa.
2020 saw LTE develop in full swing and 2021 is holding an even brighter future for LTE. LTE in conjunction with 5G will continue connecting people and everything across the world.
— Tian Zhongyi, Chief Editor from China ICT Media
This content is sponsored by Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.