The 5G Era: How 5G is Changing the World

This blog focuses on the evolution of 5G technologies and connectivity, and the milestones achieved since the launch of the first 5G services in 2019, supported by partner use cases, opportunities, and market research from GSMA Intelligence.

The most advanced wireless technology yet, 5G has come of age. At the end of 2022, the mobile industry was serving more than one billion 5G connections. That’s a major milestone for a technology that is very different from any of its predecessors. Designed to be highly versatile, 5G is able to deliver super fast and responsive connectivity, while also supporting large numbers of simultaneous connections reliably and securely.

That versatility has led to broad adoption by businesses across the economy, from power companies and manufacturers to transport operators and food producers. Crucially, 5G is the first wireless technology that is reliable enough to replace cables for mission-critical applications, giving all kinds of businesses much greater flexibility and reducing costs. In some markets, 5G is also bringing high-speed broadband to communities beyond the reach of fixed networks.

Since the first mobile 5G services were launched in early 2019 in South Korea, China and the U.S., the technology has been adopted faster than any earlier cellular technology.


Figure 1: The number and expected growth of 5G global connections and 5G technology milestones, 2019-2030

Source: GSMA Intelligence 

Becoming more affordable

Now, a new wave of 5G rollouts in large developing countries, such as Brazil, Indonesia and India, is prompting the mass production of more affordable 5G devices, which in turn should further bolster subscriber growth. The average retail price for a 5G phone has now fallen below US$500, with devices under US$150 available from some vendors, such as Realme.

Two specialist 5G technologies – NB-IoT and LTE-M – can support large numbers of low power connections simultaneously and at low cost. These so-called massive IoT technologies have been deployed across the world, enabling applications to operate across borders in a smooth and predictable manner.  As of May 2022, there were more than 80 NB-IoT networks deployed commercially in more than 45 markets and 30 LTE-M networks in more than 25 markets.

GSMA Intelligence estimates there will be over two billion 5G connections by 2025. By the end of that year, more than two in five people around the world should live within reach of a 5G network, as mobile operators collectively invest hundreds of billions of dollars in 5G networks.

Enriching lives and livelihoods

At the end of July 2022, China had almost two million 5G base stations, providing coverage across all prefecture-level cities, counties and 96% of towns, according to the government. Even people working in the offshore fishing industry can get a 5G connection, meaning they now receive news, weather warning messages and videos on demand, and can use live webcast platforms to sell fish.

Boat crews can connect with family members through high-speed data links and HD video calls, making their lives more enjoyable than before. “I can chat with my family at any time in the open sea to let them know my status at sea, so that my family can rest assured that I can go out to fishing,” says Chen Bo, a fisherman in Xitou Town, Yangjiang City.

China Unicom Guangdong says more than 4,000 boats now use its 5G-enabled digital fishing vessel system, which has been running stably for nearly two years.  The operator plans to roll out the system to the whole of Guangdong province, with a view to serving more than 40,000 vessels. It also intends to use 5G to support offshore wind power, fish farms, tourism, manufacturing plants, firefighting and QR code scanning

Paving the way to Industry 4.0

In the manufacturing sector, ultra-reliable 5G systems are ushering in very high levels of automation, customisation, flexibility and analytics – the hallmarks of a new wave of efficient production, known as Industry 4.0. With the flexibility afforded by 5G, manufacturers can reconfigure factory floors to make more efficient use of space and time, and optimise operational processes to drive cost savings and quality improvements.

In many cases, manufacturers are using private 5G networks that aren’t open to other users, further enhancing reliability and security. For example, Qualcomm and Bosch Rexroth are using a private 5G network at the Robert Bosch Elektronik factory in Salzgitter, Germany. After a robot takes a photo of a part, the image is transferred via 5G to a local server, where artificial intelligence (AI) is used to spot defects. The trial suggests private 5G networks could provide 99.9999% reliable wireless connectivity inside factories, enabling the replacement of wired connections.  Private 5G networks can also support microsecond-level time synchronization for industrial equipment and centimetre-level precision when positioning vehicles and mobile robots.

Addressing the energy crisis

Energy companies are beginning to harness 5G to produce power more efficiently. For example, the data collected by 5G networks will allow for the creation of real-time digital models (known as digital twins) of power plants that can be used to deliver a step change in their productivity.

On wind farms, for example, the data collected by 5G can be analysed by AI to optimise the angle of each turbine to increase the output of the overall farm – a process known as wake steering. This solution will enable wind farms to site turbines closer together, potentially enabling the energy produced to be doubled, according to Vayu Ai, which is testing 5G-connected drones to monitor the performance of turbines on a wind farm in Montana.

In China, 5G connectivity is making coal mining safer and more efficient. For example, Shanxi Xiangning Coke Coal Group, together with China Unicom Industrial Internet (Shanxi) and Huawei, deployed a private 5G network in October 2021 in the Yanjiahe Coal Mine. The network can transfer high definition videos captured by cameras underground to the equipment room above ground for content analysis and risk identification. That means miners don’t need to spend as much time in dangerous areas, reducing the risk of injury for workers

Compared with the complex cabling it replaced, the 5G private network is easy to deploy and more reliable. By enabling automation and improving safety, private 5G networks could improve efficiency and productivity in a wide range of industries, including the oil, gas and chemicals sectors.

Introducing standalone 5G

Today, many 5G networks work in tandem with a 4G core network.  But deployments of so-called standalone networks, with a flexible 5G core, are beginning to ramp up. These standalone networks’ bespoke and flexible architecture can efficiently serve demanding use cases. They can, for example, provide dedicated slices of ultra-reliable low-latency connectivity.

At the end of 2022, there were 31 commercial 5G standalone networks in 16 countries. Mobile operators are collaborating with enterprises to explore the potential of 5G standalone. For example, SoftBank and Honda are working together to test the effectiveness of using 5G standalone connectivity to reduce collisions between pedestrians and vehicles. In Spain, Telefónica is using the technology to support automated guided robot vehicles, remote maintenance systems employing smart glasses and drones for site surveillance.

Deploying the Telco Edge Cloud and Open Interfaces to the Power of 5G

With the advent of 5G, mobile operators are processing more data at the edge of their networks using compute power in base stations, regional offices and other distributed infrastructure. These edge compute capabilities can make services and applications much more responsive, as the data generated by users only needs to travel short distances.

Edge computing is a key enabling technology for many new services, including extended reality applications, which bring together the cyber and physical worlds to enrich training, education, commerce and entertainment. These virtual environments will need to be interoperable to make it straightforward to transition from one to another.

Through the GSMA, mobile operators are building the Telco Edge Cloud – a global platform to expose, manage and market edge computing, network resources and capabilities across different operators and national boundaries.

The next goal is to expose the power of 5G network capabilities through an Open Gateway MoU- a connection between Cloud infrastructure and MNO network capabilities for Developers and Cloud Service Providers – that packages operators’ edge computing and network capabilities simply via specific Open API exposure, adopted commonly by many operators, to support commercial services across different networks seamlessly.

Delivering super-fast connectivity

5G networks can operate in radio frequencies above 24 GHz, where they can deliver multi-gigabit data rates and very low latency connectivity. Mobile operators are deploying these 5G millimetre wave (mmWave) networks in crowded locations, such as sports arenas, stadiums, airports, concerts, busy shopping streets and other large venues, to achieve a 10-fold increase in available contiguous bandwidth compared to networks in lower frequency spectrum. As a result, 5G mmWave networks can handle a greater number of connections (one million devices per square miles) while also boosting the peak data rates for individual devices.

South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT) is looking to dramatically improve the Wi-Fi available on Seoul’s subway trains by using 5G mmWave networks to connect access points to the Internet. A trial on part of Seoul subway line 2, found that 5G mmWave backhaul can boost public Wi-Fi speeds by up to 25 times, enabling passengers to watch 4K videos on their mobile devices – something that isn’t possible with the in-train Wi-Fi coverage today. The MSIT believes the 5G network should support at least 700 Mbps in each car, increasing capacity 10-fold.

High-speed connectivity should enhance commuters’ quality of life and, in some cases, their productivity. It could also encourage greater use of public transport, reducing vehicle congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in Korea’s cities.

Streamlining shopping

In the retail sector, 5G can make shopping faster and more enjoyable. In the U.S., the Miami Dolphins football team has launched the Hard Rock Stadium Express Shop which uses Verizon’s 5G mmWave network to enables consumers to purchase snacks, beverages and merchandise without having to pay at a till.

By analysing the high resolution images captured by the Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband network, computer vision technology tracks items as they are selected off the shelves. After inserting a credit card at the door, shoppers can purchase products and simply walk out of the store. They are billed electronically, receiving a receipt through their email. Thanks to 5G and edge compute, latency is greatly reduced, allowing the sales tracking data to be processed in near real time.

Ushering in 5G Advanced

5G technology continues to get better and better. Set to be commercialised from 2024 onwards, 5G-Advanced networks will support a wide range of use cases, including services that need fast uplinks or need to connect people moving at high velocities, such as those on trains and on planes. 5G-Advanced is also designed to efficiently support highly immersive and interactive applications, which will be widely deployed in the entertainment, training and education sectors.

At the same time, 5G-Advanced will further strengthen support for low cost, low power-devices, such as industrial wireless sensors, smart watches and smart eyewear. It will also support time-sensitive networks, timing-as-a-service, and precise network-based positioning. Further, the technology will provide tailored support for drones, as well as fully seamless interworking between satellite-based networks and terrestrial networks.

While 5G has already enhanced both individuals’ lives and organisations’ effectiveness, it is just getting started. As it evolves further, this advanced cellular technology will quite literally change the world.

Get involved

Read all 5G use cases on the GSMA 5G Transformation Hub. If you would like to showcase your 5G use case(s), contact us at [email protected] for details on how you can get involved.