5G to hit 5.6 billion subscribers in 2029, but 4G will remain dominant in three regions

Globally, total mobile data traffic will more than triple in the next five years. Growing AI adoption could push that even higher.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor
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The number of 5G subscriptions is expected to hit 5.6 billion worldwide by the end of 2029, when 5G will be the dominant network in all regions except for three, according to the latest Ericsson Mobility Report

Globally, Ericsson projects that 5G will account for 60% of all mobile subscriptions by the end of 2029 and will drive 75% of overall mobile data traffic, which will see a compound annual growth rate of 20% through 2029. 5G accounted for 25% of mobile data traffic last year, up from 17% in 2022. The report noted that annual mobile data traffic growth is projected to slow at varying rates across different regions during the forecast period, depending on local market dynamics.   

Noting that traffic growth can be volatile, Ericsson pointed to factors such as global macroeconomic changes, growth in fixed wireless access (FWA) connections, and subscriber migration to later generations in markets such as India, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Excluding FWA, total mobile data traffic globally will climb threefold, reaching 313 exabytes per month in 2029. With FWA included, this number will grow at around 3.5 times to hit 466 exabytes per month in 2029.

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According to Ericsson, some 300 service providers across the globe currently offer 5G services, 50 of which have launched 5G standalone networks. The number of 5G subscribers currently stands at more than 1.7 billion, with some 160 million added in the first three months of this year. By the end of 2024, there will be just under 600 million 5G subscriptions worldwide.

These numbers were adjusted upward from previous forecasts due to a positive outlook from African markets. Nations are also gradually turning off older networks such as 2G and 3G, Daniel Ode, head of Ericsson Singapore, Philippines, and Brunei, said during a media briefing on Thursday in Singapore.

He noted that the smartphone market also recovered this year, with shipments growing 6% year-on-year in Q1 2024. Ode added that service providers in advanced 5G markets -- such as Australia and Singapore -- continue to focus on innovations in speed, coverage, and differentiated services.

While 5G is expected to be the dominant network in most regions by 2029, it will take the backseat to 4G in three regions: Southeast Asia and Oceania; Central and Eastern Europe; and Sub-Saharan South East Africa. Compared to other regions such as North America and Western Europe, where 5G will account for 90% and 86% of mobile subscriptions, respectively, LTE or 4G is expected to remain the dominant network across those three regions in 2029.

The predecessor network to 5G will account for 50% of mobile subscriptions in Southeast Asia and Oceania, which includes Singapore, Australia, and Thailand. By comparison, 5G is expected to contribute 43% of mobile subscriptions in the region by the end of the forecast period. In 2029, 5G subscriptions will clock at 560 million in Southeast Asia and Oceania, with uptake fueled by more affordable devices, promotional plans, and large data bundles offered by service providers, according to Ericsson. 

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Asked why 4G, rather than 5G, is expected to retain the majority share in the three regions, Ode said adoption depended on local market developments and maturity. He further noted that rather than hold and wait to move to 6G networks, operators would want to continue investing in 5G services to tap new revenue growth, especially as they look to stave off falling ARPU (average revenue per user). 

Although 4G is expected to account for 50% of Southeast Asia's mobile subscriptions in 2029, this figure will be lower than its 78% share last year, as 5G grows its base to 43% by the end of the forecast period. 5G's subscriber base is currently at 20% of the total in Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, and Thailand, according to Ericsson, citing data from service providers in Thailand and Australia and government agencies in Singapore and Malaysia.

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The report also highlighted that while the Philippines has seen increased 5G network coverage over the past year, 5G penetration and data consumption have stayed low.

Ericsson noted that Indonesia's 5G subscriber uptake has also been limited, as service providers wait to be awarded mid-band spectrum to expand their 5G coverage. Vietnam, too, recently auctioned 5G mid-band spectrum, and commercial 5G is expected to launch over the next six to 12 months.

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In India, which has seen intensive 5G network deployments, wide coverage, and availability of affordable services, 5G subscriptions clocked at some 119 million in 2023. This figure is projected to grow to 840 million by the end of 2029 on strong 5G uptake, accounting for 65% of mobile subscriptions in India, Bhutan, and Nepal. 

The region will see 4G's share drop from 63% in 2023 to 32% in 2029, with connections dipping to 410 million subscriptions from 740 million, according to Ericsson.

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Ode said: "Differentiated connectivity will give users, developers, and enterprises the optimal level of connectivity at the right time for their needs, ensuring seamless performance and resource efficiency in the network. High-performing programmable networks, utilizing 5G standalone architecture, provide new opportunities for service innovation and performance-based business models." 

He added that the introduction of devices powered by artificial intelligence (AI) features could shape user behavior in the future, though it remains to be seen how it will shape the future design of smartphones. This would depend on the use cases and applications for AI on mobile, he noted. 

Growing adoption of AI, however, will certainly fuel mobile data traffic and the need to address any potential latency issues, he said. 

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