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Mobile subscriptions worldwide outlook

Preparations for 5G are gaining momentum and operators are gearing up for commercial launches. The number of 5G subscriptions is forecast to reach 1 billion by the end of 2023.

Key findings

  • LTE becomes the dominant mobile access technology in 2017
  • In 2023, there will be 9.1 billion mobile subscriptions, 8.5 billion mobile broadband subscriptions and 6.2 billion unique mobile subscribers
  • 1 billion 5G subscriptions for enhanced mobile broadband are expected in 2023
  • Higher spectrum bands will be important for 5G

The standardization work plan for 5G has been accelerated. The standard as specified in 3GPP Release 15 is planned to be finalized by the end of 2017 for Non-Standalone 5G New Radio (NR),1 and by mid-2018 for Standalone 5G NR. Early 5G deployments are anticipated in several markets, including the US, South Korea, Japan and China. The first commercial networks based on Standalone 5G NR are expected to go live in 2019, with major network deployments from 2020. By the end of 2023, over 1 billion 5G subscriptions are forecast for enhanced mobile broadband.

LTE is anticipated to become the dominant mobile access technology by the end of 2017, and is estimated to reach 5.5 billion subscriptions by the end of 2023. At that point, LTE subscriptions will account for more than 60 percent of all mobile subscriptions. In developing markets, GSM/EDGE-only will still account for a significant share of subscriptions.

Smartphone penetration will continue to rise, driven by the increasing affordability of devices. At the end of 2023, 7.3 billion subscriptions associated with smartphones are anticipated.

A 5G subscription is here counted as such when associated with a device that supports NR as specified in 3GPP Release 15, connected to a 5G-enabled network.

Mobile subscriptions by technology (billion)
Subscriptions/lines, subscribers (billion)

Subscriptions for mobile broadband are expected to approach 95 percent of all subscriptions by the end of 2023

It is forecast that there will be 9.1 billion mobile subscriptions by the end of 2023. Mobile broadband subscriptions will reach 8.5 billion, accounting for close to 95 percent of all mobile subscriptions. The number of unique mobile subscribers is estimated to reach 6.2 billion by the end of the forecast period.

Mobile broadband will complement fixed broadband in some segments, and will be the dominant mode of access in others.2 Subscriptions for PCs and tablets with mobile capabilities are expected to show moderate growth, reaching 330 million in 2023.

5G will be introduced in higher spectrum bands to meet new traffic demands

Mobile broadband traffic is expected to increase by eight times over the coming six years, while commercial 5G systems will be introduced from 2019. However, below 3GHz, most of the mobile cellular spectrum bands currently used by service providers are becoming congested during busy hours in highly loaded cells.

In response to increasing demands, the mobile industry is focusing on optimizing the spectral efficiency of LTE in existing frequency bands using new advanced functionalities, such as Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) and carrier aggregation. To solve capacity needs long term, most countries are expected to make additional spectrum available under new national 5G regulatory regimes. This will be achieved by extending the use of spectrum to higher bands, where a large amount of bandwidth could help accommodate the expected mobile data consumption from around 1 billion new 5G subscriptions in 2023.

Several suitable bands are currently being considered to support 5G subscription growth, and to deliver the data rates needed to meet the future demand for broadband services and applications. Currently bandwidth in the 28GHz band (26.5–29.5GHz) is being allocated in some countries, but bandwidth in the 26GHz band (24.25–27.5GHz) is also being considered. The latter band is part of the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19) agenda, while the former band is being assigned under an already existing mobile allocation in the ITU Radio Regulations.

The mobile industry considers these two bands to be the most important for terrestrial mobile applications on higher frequencies (above 6GHz). The 38GHz and 42GHz bands are also being considered as complementary resources to support 5G requirements.

1 Non-Standalone 5G NR will utilize the existing LTE radio and Evolved Packet Core network as an anchor for  mobility management and coverage, while adding a new 5G radio access carrier to enable certain 5G use cases

2 The number of fixed broadband users is at least three times the number of fixed broadband connections, due to shared subscriptions in households, enterprises and public access spots. This is the opposite of the situation for mobile phones, where subscription numbers exceed user numbers