The number of 5G mobile subscriptions globally will reach 1.6 billion by the end of this year, according to new data from Ericsson. That’s more than the Swedish equipment maker and font of industry knowledge predicted just a few short months ago. But while the headline numbers look good for 5G uptake in general, Ericsson is having to work hard to persuade us that 5G standalone is coming into its own.

The latest edition of Ericsson’s Mobility Report opens with the assertion that “5G standalone brings new opportunities,” which sounds promising, but there’s nothing in the report that we haven’t heard before. The vendor touches on the usual benefits of 5G SA: essentially, use cases that rely on

low latency, higher speeds, improved capacity and network slicing. But while it seeks to strike an optimistic note on the promise of 5G SA, its assertion that “more than 40 service providers have deployed or launched 5G SA in public networks,” is a bit weak at best. To put that in context, around 280 service providers globally have launched commercial 5G services.

Ericsson’s numbers gel with what we have seen elsewhere in the industry on 5G SA. Dell’Oro recently partly blamed weak 5G SA deployment for a sizeable dip in mobile core market growth, at the same time noting that there have been just seven 5G SA launches to date in 2023, while the GSA – which worked with Ericsson on the stats for its Mobility Report – shared data that also showed little growth in 5G SA this year.

But while 5G SA might not be living up to expectations thus far, the same cannot be said for 5G subscription growth, albeit for the most part based on existing core infrastructure.

As above, Ericsson predicts that there will be 1.6 billion 5G subs in the world by the end of this year, or 18% of all mobile subscriptions, driven by North America, where 5G penetration will reach 61%. As recently as June the vendor forecast that the year-end 5G total would come in at 1.5 billion, so clearly the market is moving faster than it once thought. In the third quarter there were 163 million 5G subscriber additions taking the total to 1.4 billion by the end of September. As such, the year-end target look eminently achievable.

Further, Ericsson puts total global 5G subscriptions at 5.3 billion by the end of 2029, by which date 5G network coverage should reach 85% of the population, up from 45% at the end of this year.

And those customers will be using plenty of data. Average global mobile data consumption per smartphone will come in at 56 GB per month by end-2029, Ericsson predicts, up from 21 GB this year. That’s quite a hike. Indeed, Ericsson expects a threefold increase in total mobile data traffic over the six years, driven by improved device capabilities, an increase in data-intensive content and ongoing network performance improvements.

“With more than 600 million 5G subscriptions added globally this year, and rising in every region, it is evident that the demand for high performance connectivity is strong,” said Fredrik Jejdling, Executive Vice President and Head of Networks, at Ericsson. “The roll-out out of 5G continues and we see an increasing number of 5G standalone networks being deployed, bringing opportunities to support new and more demanding applications for both consumers and enterprises,” he added.

It makes sense that Ericsson and doubtless others with a vested interest are persisting in banging that 5G SA drum. It’s questionable whether it will be enough to stop the operators dragging their feet though.

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