5G 2020-2025: Towards a Prediction (draft 0.6)

I have no experience writing fiction, but 5G estimates even a year out are speculative. Four and five year forecasts are guaranteed inaccurate because 5G is new and changing rapidly.

Yet people building networks need to think years ahead. Reporters love the headline. The year I spent researching 5G gives me some insight. Originally, I wanted to leave anything beyond 2 or 3 years to my brother, a Hugo-nominated science fiction writer. But inquiring minds want to know.

Update March 1: As we all know, Corona is serious. If the world economy tanks, the impact on 5G is the least of our problems. That said, China will probably hit its target of 150 million 5G phones. Xi Jinping has personally listed 5G as one of the half-dozen technologies that will be emphasized in the massive stimulus to come. The day after Xi addressed the Politburo, China Unicom confirmed it will install 250,000 5G radios this year. China was set to be 65-75% of 5G in 2019, 2020, and 2021 and is likely to prop up the 5G market this year and next.

The surprise-free, most likely estimates are:

  • 2020 185-210,000,000 (depending on Corona)
  • 2021 500,000,000 (The key to this figure is an assumption half of China’s 400 million phones will be 5G. Some 5G phones will be priced under $200.)
  • 2022 950,000,000 (300M China. Western Europe, Japan, South Asia and the U.S. meaningful.)
  • 2023 1,550,000,000 (India and others should become significant. China slows down as saturation is in sight.)
  • 2024 2,250,000,000 (4G & 5G phones will be similar in cost so probably half the phones will be 5G)
  • 2025 3,050,000,000
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5G Country by Country

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First, a few updates.

Feb 24 Xi Jinping told the Politburo “To prop up support for … 5G networks and industrial Internet.” China Unicom and China Telecom committed to deploying 250,000 sites between July & September. 

To put that in perspective, in 3 months the two companies, working together, will deploy about as many sites as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint have, in total, 4G & 5G. China Mobile is set for another 200,000. Q4 construction will raise the total. 5G will be part of China’s massive stimulus.

There’s a huge unknown in the U.S. The Sprint spectrum is golden. 2.5 GHz has enough reach to cover ?80% of the U.S. without adding towers. The budget, manpower, towers & equipment is available. If CTO Neville Ray moves quickly, AT&T and Verizon will have to follow and the U.S. will be a strong #2 in 5G subscribers. If the merger process holds things up, this may be in 2021. Meanwhile, low-band is proving slower than 4G. It shouldn’t be called 5G but consumers don’t know the difference.

Feb 22 Eir now offers 5G to 25% of Ireland. Why are DT & BT so far behind? Apple upped chip orders by 50%. With the $399 iPhone and 5G in the fall, Apple expects a blowout year. Ronan Dunne of Verizon expects a rush to 5G with the iPhone, which should speed up deployments.

Feb 7 If production gets back to normal by the end of Feb, the natural drop in 5G subs will be 10-15 million. China has a large economic stimulus planned. If 5G is included, the lost ground could be recovered. But the best epidemiologists are not sure the pandemic won’t continue longer. If so, supply chains could break and the world go into recession. The slowdown in 5G – and much else – could be severe.

Korea added only 313,000 5G users in December, half the August total. It missed the 5 million year end 2019 goal. The 15 million projection for the end of 2020 is now uncertain.

Verizon has delayed its 5G mmWave buildout by 1-3 years. Viavi, whose test equipment is used in most 5G networks, sees very limited growth in 5G networks in 2020 outside of Asia.

5G offers few benefits to consumers, who may be becoming disillusioned. It’s reasonable to reduce the surprise-free projection from 210 million to 195 million, but the data is not yet clear.

January 27 Coronavirus has much of China in lockdown. We all hope and pray that the number of infected peaks rapidly. If not, it could have a profound effect on 5G phone production and coverage expansion. Update Feb 2 The NY Times now estimates over 100,000 people are infected, with only the most severely infected showing up in the official counts.

Except for China and Korea, no country has discussed firm plans for 2020. Almost no company has public projections, either of deployment or subscriber count. To create my scenarios, I put together the best available information, especially on deployment. Improvements always welcome. daveb@dslprime.com

Where will the customers be?

China is almost certain to have 150 million, likely ten times as many as any other country. South Korea expects 30% of the population to subscribe, about 15 million.

Almost all other nations will be much lower, despite the near-universal claims of companies they are moving ahead rapidly.

For an overview of 5G in 2020, 5G 2020 Predictions: Surprising and surprise free 195-210 million, Low 165M, High 265M It’s a 5,000 word analysis report. This country by country adds to the analysis.

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5G 2020 Predictions: Surprising and surprise free 195-210 million, Low 165M, High 265M

“I will tell you, there’s a lot of units coming.” Liam Griffin, CEO Skyworks

February 2020: Corona could shave 10-15 million off the 150 million China planned for 2020. Korea added 313,000 in December, half the August figure. It’s too early to be sure, but I’ve changed the 5G surprise-free estimate from 210 million to 195-210 million.

I’ve maintained the 2020 5G high estimate, however. The Chinese plan a major stimulus after the epidemic, with 5G an important part. Corona will probably come under control in China fairly soon. If not, the impact on 5G will be very large.

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February Need to Know: Corona, iPhone blowout 2020, $8B German FTTH, U.S. Lifeline cuts, 370M 4G at Jio India

Corona is already the worst epidemic of the last thirty years. The best scientists in the world aren’t sure when it will be brought under control. My brother, a Professor of Emergency Medicine, is hopeful of control soon, but isn’t certain.

If contained, cell phones sales will be down 40-70 million in Q1, including a reduction of >10 million in the China 5G plan. Many stores are closed and people worldwide holding back. The supply chain is already struggling. Let us all hope Corona does not get worse, which would produce total havoc in our connected world.

Apple expects a blowout 2020, upping chip orders by 50% (Digitimes) The $399 SE phone may miss its March date but is coming soon, Apple’s biggest profits are now coming from a cut of the store games & apps. Dropping price will yield more buyers for the services.

iPhone 5G in the fall should also be humungous. More than half of the premium phone buyers ib the West go Apple and will probably rush in. Verizon is racing to have 5G ready when the iPhone comes out.

Deutsche Glasfiber raised $8B for 6 million fiber homes passed.

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Coronavirus Matters – But Numbers are Uncertain

The best epidemiologists are not sure when the pandemic will be controlled. That makes it impossible to provide an accurate estimate of the effect on telecom and 5G.

If production gets back to normal by the end of Feb, the natural drop in 5G subs will be 10-15 million. I’ve reduced my “surprise-free” 2020 projection from 210 million to 195 million because of corona and the slowdown in December in Korea. I have too little data to be confident.

China has a large economic stimulus planned. If 5G is included, the lost ground could be recovered. World leadership in 5G is important in China and it may choose to get back on track.

If production limits extend past February, the impact will likely be large. Supply chains could break and the world could go into recession. The slowdown in 5G – and much else – could be severe.

Does Korea Slowdown Mean 5G Demand is Falling?

Korea added only 313,000 5G users in December, half the August total. It missed the 5 million year end 2019 goal. The 15 million projection for 5G users in Korea at the end of 2020 is now uncertain.

Phone subsidies have been cut sharply from the $400-600 earlier in the year. Coverage, at over 80%, is the highest in the world but the 90% target for yearend has been missed. The Korean press has been reporting reliability problems, even in Seoul.

One month is not enough to prove a trend. However, I have a few other data points that are making me wonder about demand.

Verizon has delayed its 5G buildout by 1-3 years. Last year, it predicted significant 5G revenue in 2020. Hans Vestberg on the financial call put that off until 2021. The build is also slowing. Verizon’s original plan was to cover about a quarter of the U.S. with mmWave by 2022. It has now pushed that back to 2024-2025. Viavi, whose test equipment is used in most 5G networks, sees very limited growth in 5G networks in 2020 outside of Asia.

5G offers few benefits to consumers, who may be becoming disillusioned. Alternatively, these holdbacks may be an exception. It’s reasonable to reduce the surprise-free projection from 210 million to 195 million because of Korea and coronavirus, but the data is not yet clear.

Inconvenient Truth: Real 5G Little Better Than Decent 4G

The average 2019 4G download speed across 20,000 PC Mag tests in 30 Canadian cities was over 200 Mbps down. The latency was less than 30 ms. The average in Vancouver was over 300 Mbps.

Larger below

The majority of independent tests of 5G outside Asia are slower than 200 Mbps. Verizon reports 5G latency of 30 ms. (I’ve actually seen some Verizon latency tests in the 20-27 ms range, including 4G and 5G.) 20 gigabit speed and 1 ms latency are mostly fantasies outside the lab for years.

Putting it bluntly, the difference between 2019 4G and 2019 5G is insignificant, except for the very few sites with millimetre wave. For the next several years, the improvements in 5G performance will be modest, except where Edge servers are installed.

There are 0 major use cases/applications that need 5G rather than decent 4G that are likely to reach volume for years, with the possible exception of AR/VR to mobile phones or surprisingly rapid development of 5G controlled factories.

All the studies that claim a large economic payoff from 5G based on supposed new uses. If new u implies any claim of major economic advantage is b_______.

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Millimeter Wave: What’s Goin’ On

Verizon has the only substantial mmWave network on the planet. They may have already covered 5% of the US, but most is not yet turned on. The company refuses to release any figures other than 30 million passed one day, about a quarter of the US. The majority of Verizon’s “5G” will be low or midband, which will cover about 40% of the US next summer.*

At Verizon, business areas and some neighborhoods will get mmWave, the good stuff designed for a gig or so. The rest will get low and mid-band, details pending CBRS and C-Band auctions. It will mostly be 70%-90% slower. Guess which neighborhoods will get the slow stuff.

KT was one of the early pioneers in mmWave, supported by Samsung research. Jerry Pi at Samsung was one of the first in 5G mmWave research and Samsung the first to put a large team of engineers to work building actual equipment. KT nows talks vaguely of sometime in the future, probably highly limited for the next several years.

NTT DOCOMO has similar plans. CTO Seizo Onoe has been involved in mmWave since the beginning. For now, DOCOMO is only talking about limited trials for several years. It may try for a splash at Olympic venues. Telefonica Deutsche had plans but seem to have set them aside.

Few are building mmWave. Most telcos believe they have more capacity than they can sell until the middle of the decade or later

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Fiber: What’s Goin’ On

Telcos are adding fiber at a rapid pace. It makes money. AT&T’s CFO John Stephens explains that the fiber delivers three sources of revenue.

Fiber works. I can use it three times. I can use it for my consumers. I can use it for my business customers. And I can use it for my wireless backhaul.

CEO Hans Vestberg of Verizon used almost exactly the same comments to explain the 1.400 miles of fiber it is building every month.

Orange/FT, Telefonica Spain, Bell Canada, and Telus cover more than half their territory with fiber and continue to add more. Orange has 8 million more homes set to pass.

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Facts, not Hype

Typical real-world latency is 30 ms, no better than good 4G. Verizon
Edge networks cut latency to 10-20 ms in 4G or 5G

Fiber latency is usually lower. Telus

Low-band “5G” today is no faster than 4G 6 independent tests

Mid-band 5G’s speed is 100-300 Mbps, similar to good 4G in the same spectrum. 6 independent tests

mmWave capacity is typically 3X mid-band but is <5% of 5G

5G NB-IoT is almost the same as 4G, unless 50,000+ local connections.

Wi-Fi is 90+% of IoT, not cellular.

3/4ths of 5G users are in China and Korea.

80% of Korea is covered. Swisscom and Etisalat Abu Dhabi are similar. I know no other countries more than 20% covered. I don’t count low-band at 4G speeds.

Virtual reality makes most people nauseous at 20 ms and some at 10 ms

Connected cars work fine at 4G speeds and latency. Only remote driving needs lower.

Autonomous cars do not require 5G. Ford

Almost all remote surgery will be over fiber, not 5G unless surgeons operate from the beach.

5G does not cost more than 4G. Telco capex is flat to down Verizon, Orange/FT, NTT DOCOMO, AT&T

More than 65% can be covered by 5G from existing cells. (Smart build) Only mmWave needs many small cells.

Factories and industrial Internet almost always work about the same in 4G as in 5G

There is no evidence that faster wireless speeds have a major effect on employment or the economy.
Why would watching more TV improve the economy?

Spectrum usually has minimal effect on deployment although it (modestly) lowers telco costs
Major exception: Big chunks at 2.5 or 3.5 GHz ideal for Massive MIMO 4G or 5G

Competition inspired AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile US to roll out faster.
Inspiring or ordering one carrier to build 5G will normally force others to respond

All these are based on multiple sources. Ask.

265M 5G in 2020. The High Scenario (Draft)

Update Dec 12: Xiaomi will have a decent 5G phone for $285 in China for January. The high estimate is looking more likely. **The surprise-free projection is 210M 5G subscribers in 2020 but surprises always happen. With only 6 months of data from Korea and month from China, 5G predictions are especially uncertain. Some plausible factors that could result in more subscriptions include:

The price of phones comes down worldwide and drives sales

One reason demand is exploding in China but slow-moving in the West is that 5G phones in China cost about less than half the price. Decent 5G phones cost US$470 in China. Update: down to $285.** Most are $500-$700. The parts for a 5G phone will only cost $15-35 more more than 4G in 2020. The gap between 4G is rapidly falling as 9 companies compete to survive in a market with room for only 4 or 5 to make a profit. LG and Lenovo/Motorola are losing a lot of money already. Today in China, most people buying phones costing $400 or more are smart to choose 5G. That will be true across the developed world as Chinese prices reach the West. Who would want to buy a 4G phone likely to be obsolete in a year or two when 5G prices are close? It only costs $1 to airfreight a phone. I’ve already had a query about whether you could make money by importing phones to Europe. It’s probably a good business, although small incompatibilities could be a problem. The first European carriers to offer phones at worldwide prices stand to gain important market share. LG Uplus, #3 in Korea, has gained important share. In the first month, China Unicom is ahead of China Telecom rather than far behind. 5G is a once in a decade opportunity for companies to win.

Europe and US might go beyond pr

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5G Phones: 2019 China $470-700 2020 West: $400-? 2020 China $300

Update Jan 10: Xiaomi is now shipping the US$285 Redmi K30 5G, months before that price was expected. Previously: Nine companies are competing in a 5G market that has room for 4 or 5. In 2020, the difference in 5G and 4G manufacturing costs will fall to US$15-35 per phone. 150 million 5G subscribers in China will drive economies of scale in 2020. See the chart of 5G phone prices at

Result: 5G phone prices are plummetting. That will continue and is central to any analysis of the 5G future.

Some implications:

There is a tipping point where the price difference is so modest, 5G is the right choice for anyone able to spend a few hundred dollars for a phone. 5G will cover half of China in 2020, much of Europe and the US 2021-2022.

If I were spending US$400 or more for a phone, I would buy a 5G model not likely to become obsolete soon, if prices had come down in my country. In China in 2020, most willing to pay $300 will go 5G. China Mobile is confident 150M of the ~400M phones sold in China in 2020 will be 5G.

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The Low Scenario: Perhaps Only 170M

12/3 Updated from 160M to 170M based on the Chinese decision to sell 150M subs. ** If people realize that 5G has few if any practical advantages, they could hold off buying it. If TSMC can’t raise production sufficiently, that would be a major holdback. Nearly all 5G chips except Samsung are produced at TSMC, which is already asking six month’s lead time on new orders.

Almost all US and European 5G builds are so limited they are essentially pr. While many of the top European tech people agree with me accelerated builds are a smart move, their CEOs still are holding back.

My guess is the Europeans will respond when they realize the demand, but none are moving yet. Currently, they are counting on a gentleman’s agreement not to build. If all the companies hold back, the reduced investment will increase cash flow.

Top management at companies like Vodafone and Telefonica fear they will gain little from speeding the deployments, because the incumbents will respond in kind. That’s probably wrong; a company the size of DT can’t change plans that quickly. Even a six-month head start would yield a profitable first-mover advantage.

DT CEO Tim Hottges is confident Germans will hold back on 5G. He has frozen capital spending at a level that implies most of Germany will not be served for several years. Randall Stephenson of AT&T agrees. He won’t even sell 5G to consumers.

One of the very best analyst outfits tells me they are sticking with an 80M estimate for 2020. They are skeptical of the actual Chinese purchase figures and see their fellow Europeans holding back.

210 million is my surprise free scenario, but surprises always happen. I believe the three above are unlikely but certainly are possible.

We only have a month’s data from China, which will be more than half in 2020. I’ll be much more confident with a little more data.

5G Phones Will Keep Getting Cheaper

In 2020, the difference in 5G and 4G manufacturing costs will fall to US$15-35 per phone. Xiaomi in January is offering a decent 5G phone for $285. The 4G version is only $55 less.

Huawei and Samsung, who make their own parts and have enormous volume, will have an advantage. Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo believe their prices must be especially aggressive or they will lose market share.

As the price goes down, more people will choose 5G over 4G phones. In the fall of 2019, a third of Korean sales have been 5G phones, as the carriers are using subsidies to bring down the price. LG Uplus has been particularly aggressive, seizing what it considers a “once-in-a-decade” opportunity to gain share with 5G.

Although the first 5G phones cost about US$1,000, by October prices were down to $536 (Oppo) and $570 (Vivo). In January, Xiaomi will sell 5G for $285.Prices will continue to fall after that, although the $50-150 phones are still a while off.

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Early data on coverage

Few companies outside of China and Korea have released data. Here’s what I have for now. This will fill in.

CountryCompanyCoverage (M)Coverage %Radio countSubscribers (M)
ChinaChina Mobile4040,0004
ChinaChina Telecom60, shared30,0003
ChinaChina Unicom60, shared30,0003
SwitzerlandSwisscom90% yearend 2019

October, 2019 ~15M 5G Subscribers

I’ve been wanting to make this chart since May, 2019, when Verizon & Korea made big announcements. Korea is ~4M. 70% of the population is covered and soon 10% of the population will have 5G. China’s 8 million subs are less than 1% of the population but I expect explosive growth,

Neither Verizon nor anyone else has sold enough to release a figure. My guess is the world total outside of Korea and China is less than 1 million.

ChinaChina Mobile~4M
ChinaChina Telecom~3M
ChinaChina Unicom~3M

Most 5G “deployments” are little more than trials; only Korea & China have enough subscribers to release a figure. I expect a few others to reach a million before the first half, but for now two countries are carrying the burden.

One top executive of a giant European multinational agrees with me that the Chinese results are so good his company should also accelerate. But he hasn’t persuaded the decisionmakers.

China has more than twice the total worldwide and will be the 5G lead for at least a decade.

10M China 5G Users: Everything is Changed – see update

One week after the official launch, CM, CT, and CU have 10,000,000 5G users. 150,000,000 is a plausible estimate for 2020. 5G is here.

** Important update: Actually, the initial 10M were reservations, not users. The government figure is only 3M phones shipped in October. It appears the supply of phones will catch up quickly, but that’s unproven. **

People want to buy, undoubtedly true in the rest of the world as well. Huawei’s Weibo Mall is selling thousands of phones every minute. We need another month of data for certainty, but it looks likely China will reach 100M by summer 2020.

The phone price, mostly US$515 to $700, is $30-100 more than similar 4G phones. The difference in manufacturing cost is $30-45.

4G phones in China will be obsolete in a year or two. Most phones at $400 & above will be 5G. More expensive phones like Huawei’s top models are also selling rapidly. At these prices, you’d be foolish not to buy 5G phones if you purchasing a mid or high-end phone.

What did the Chinese telcos do?

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China 5G: 5M Early Oct 50M soon

In two days at the beginning of October, five million Chinese registered for 5G. Most or all will soon be activated. I have confirming data points. By the end of 2019, I’m confident at least 12M will sign up and more likely 20M or so.

50M will be reached in the first half of 2019, as phone prices drop to under US$300. Most Chinese estimates for 2020 are 150-200M, far more than the rest of the world combined.

The highest estimate I know in the West for worldwide 5G in 2020 is 160M; most are lower. I’m about to stick my neck out and go with the Chinese estimates. The only caveat is production limits at TSMC, which manufactures most of the chips for 5G phones.


Population by regions for 5G analysis

After 5 months, there is enough data for a (very rough) starting point for estimating 5G subscribers. In Korea, market leaders SK and KT both are confident 10% of Koreans will have 5G by the end of 2019 and 30% by the end of 2020.

I can not predict subscribers with any accuracy, although I believe I’ve done more research than most who issue predictions.

I’ve created this table (below) of the population of 13 regions and how many people represent 5%, 10%, 20%, 30%, and 50%. I’ve then put a year when the subscribers in each region might reach each percentage, based on the very limited data available.

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