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China accounted for 70% of global 5G subscriptions in 2021

China accounted for more than two-thirds of global 5G subscriptions this year, according to Ericsson's latest Mobility Report, but penetration in North America and Western Europe is catching up.

Seven out of every ten 5G subscriptions in the world were based in China this year, according to a new report from telecommunications equipment provider Ericsson. 5G growth will accelerate in the country, Ericsson predicts, but the US and Europe are catching up and will outstrip China in terms of 5G penetration by 2027. 

How fast is 5G growing?

5G is set to become the fastest-growing generation of mobile networking this year, according to Ericsson’s Mobility Report, with the total number of subscriptions reaching more than 660 million. This growth is being driven by high levels of consumer demand in North America and North East Asia, particularly China; early deployment and commitment to 5G networks; and falling smartphone prices.

This year, 5G subscriptions in North East Asia far outstripped any other region in the world, with subscriptions totalling 517 million. China made up 460 million of these, or 70% of the global total. By contrast, North America totalled 80 million subscriptions and Europe 33 million.

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China's early 5G growth has been propelled by extensive investment in infrastructure. According to the party-backed newspaper Global Times, a total of 792,000 5G base stations have been built across China, with all prefecture cities covered by 5G standalone networks at the end of February this year.

By the end of 2027, there will be 4.4bn 5G subscriptions worldwide, Ericsson predicts, representing more than 50% of the total mobile market. 5G growth in Northeast Asia will accelerate, reaching 1.6 billion subscriptions, with China accounting for 1.3 billion. But growth will accelerate in all other regions, with Europe's 5G subscriptions growing 22 times over to reach 660 million. Europe, Southeast Asia and India will all overtake North America.

However, in terms of 5G penetration (i.e the percentage of mobile subscriptions that use the 5G standard), North America will grow from 20% this year to 90% in 2027, overtaking North East Asia, as will Western Europe and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

4G subscriptions will fall back in these regions, but they will continue to be significant in much of the developing world, Ericsson predicts. In India, for example, 4G subscriptions will still make up more than 50% of total mobile subscriptions in 2027. Today, there are no 5G subscriptions available in India, despite the government's efforts to encourage telecommunications providers to trial the standard.

Ericsson's forecasts are based on historical data and the company's own internal data, as well as macroeconomic, market and technology trends. In its latest report, the company notes that its previous forecasts have often underestimated the rate of growth for each successive generation of mobile networking technology. "Once a mobile standard becomes global and reaches significant population coverage, and the ecosystem around it is established, the uptake towards mass market can be faster than even the most optimistic hockey stick forecasts indicate," it says.

In November 2015, the company projected 4G subscriptions to hit 4.1 billion in 2021; its current estimate for the year is 4.7 billion.

Despite Ericsson's growth projections, UK consumers are still ambivalent about 5G services. A survey by YouGov earlier this year found that only 13% agree with the statement that "I'm willing to pay more money to access 5G technology". And 31% of those who are not willing to upgrade to 5G said "I'm not interested in 5G technology".

Afiq Friti

Afiq Fitri

Data journalist

Afiq Fitri is a data journalist for Tech Monitor.