4G has been enough for most consumers, but its limits may start to show
Following its launch in 2009, 4G transformed mobile applications and services, and enabled new uses such as ride-hailing, navigation and video-centric social media.
4G enables consumers to stream, post, play and share all the content they want, and so they might rightly ask, what more can a new network technology offer? 5G, however, is expected by them to be better. The majority of respondents (55 per cent) expect “better network connectivity (faster, more reliable) on 5G”. However, if their current network satisfies their current needs, there may be little incentive to proactively seek out an upgrade. And this indifference will likely remain until sufficient bandwidth-hungry applications (or variants of existing applications) emerge. For example, streaming 4K video – an upgrade from the current high-definition default – would require significantly higher bit rates, of up to 50 Mbit/s.3 While this speed could be delivered by 4G, 5G would offer much more capacity.
The vast majority of consumers assume that they will adopt 5G eventually. But for most there is little urgency. They are most likely to upgrade passively. It will become increasingly hard to find smartphones that do not support 5G. By the fourth quarter of 2021, almost half (49 per cent) of smartphones shipped were already 5G capable. This compares to just under a third (32 per cent) of all smartphones shipped that were 4G capable in the same quarter post-launch.4 Globally, in 2022, 681 million 5G smartphones are forecast to be shipped.5
While the consumer may be indifferent, adoption is already happening at a record-breaking pace, encouraged and enabled by the continuing fall in the price of 5G handsets. Devices are now widely available for less than $300,6 and network operators, which are major sales channels, have a strategic interest in prioritising 5G phones over 4G ones in their retail stores. A minority of operators charge a premium for 5G, but most are now standardising on 5G across all data plans, as 5G customers use more data.7
5G is not a purchase priority but will become a necessity
Smartphone vendors tend to prioritise the specifications that are most likely to influence purchase decisions. 5G does not appear to be a leading differentiator. According to our research, only 9 per cent of respondents ranked 5G as the most important feature of a smartphone (figure 2). Nine other attributes were of greater importance.