Mobile operators in Asia-Pacific are expected to spend more than $400 billion on their networks between 2020 and 2025, with $331 billion on 5G deployments. However, the number of 5G connections will be lower than previously projected due to the global pandemic.
The region is one of the world's fastest-growing and accounts for more than half of global subscribers, according to the Asia-Pacific chapter of GSMA's Mobile Economy report. By end-2019, the region was home to 2.8 billion mobile subscribers, which accounted for 66% of its total population, and there had been almost 500 million new subscribers since 2014.
Mobile technologies and services last year also chalked up $1.6 trillion in economic value, or 5.3% of GDP, and the mobile ecosystem encompassed 18 million direct and indirect jobs. In addition, the industry helped raise $180 billion through general taxation in funds for the public sector.
By 2025, GSMA further projected that Asia-Pacific would account for half of new subscribers worldwide and be home to just over 3 billion mobile subscribers. This would account for 70% of its population.
It added that 663 million people across the region would begin using mobile internet for the first time over the next six years, pushing the overall number of Asia-Pacific mobile internet users to 2.7 billion by 2025, or 61% of its population.
For some, when they do connect, it will be to the high speeds of 5G. Nine markets in the region already launched commercial 5G mobile services, including South Korea, Japan, and China, and another 12 had officially announced plans to do likewise, said GSMA.
Just last month, telcos in Singapore officially secured their 5G licences and finalising negotiations with Ericsson and Nokia with regards to their core 5G network deployments. Operators would need to provide coverage for at least half of the island by end-2022, before scaling up to nationwide coverage by end-2025.
4G, however, still was the dominant technology in some markets in the region such as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where the focus remained in areas such as digital commerce and payments, said GSMA.
The industry body further noted that the impact of COVID-19 on 5G development would be felt more greatly in this region, since some of the world's first 5G networks already were up and running here compared to other markets that had yet to launch 5G.
This prompted GSMA to revise its 2020 projection of the number of 5G connections in Asia-Pacific to be 20% lower than its previous forecast.
GSMA's Asia-Pacific head Julian Gorman said: "Operators in the region are investing billions in continuing deployment of 5G networks that are enabling an exciting variety of new services for consumers. This is also helping transform industry and manufacturing, and driving economic growth, which is of critical importance at this time.
"As 5G becomes a reality, we call on governments and regulators to actively support a favourable business environment to encourage investment and allow operators to extend next-generation digital services to all Asia's citizens and speed financial recovery," Gorman said. "The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of a robust digital economy to cushion the economic and industrial shock of control measures. Emerging economies need to do more to stimulate and evolve the digital ecosystem, including accelerated smartphone penetration and mobile broadband adoption to prepare the foundations for an inclusive 5G future."
According to GSMA, the global pandemic would affect 5G deployments and uptake across Asia-Pacific, but its impact on the mobile industry would be temporary. The association called on governments to help mobile operators cope with the effects of COVID-19 and drive additional investment and innovation.
It said 5G likely would experience "a short-term dip rather than a long-term slump", with wider connectivity and more robust networks a priority as the world prepared to recover from the pandemic.