Why 5G Mobile Internet Might One Day Outstrip Broadband

It's not just about faster, either

  • Average mobile internet use is now over 10GB per month.
  • 5G internet is growing faster than 3G and 4G. 
  • Mobile broadband is good for lots more than just watching Netflix on the train.
Hand holding phone with speed test on the screen, beach in the background

Unsplash / Frederik Lipfert

The average worldwide mobile broadband usage is now well over 10GB per month and climbing. With 5G, it’s set to keep growing.

Thanks to 5G, the pandemic, and internet preferences in developing countries, mobile internet use is growing faster than ever, according to a new Mobility Report from Ericsson. Right now, the US is lagging behind Europe and North East Asia, but by 2026 it will have the biggest share of 5G coverage worldwide. In the end, 5G might be a bigger deal than anyone realizes. 

“On paper, 5G is 100 times faster than 4G. In practice, you probably won’t notice such a stark difference right away,” Andrew Cole of internet and utility comparison service InMyArea.com told Lifewire via email. “[But] you’ll be able to receive a stronger signal in parts of your city or town that had unreliable service before, giving you more freedom to roam. 5G could also lead to smaller, lighter, and more advanced wearable devices, from glasses to earbuds, smartwatches, health monitors, and even smart clothing or smart shoes.”

Growing Fast

There are two reasons behind the growth of mobile internet. One is that in many countries, smartphones are the primary computers for many people, and the main way they get online. This obviously means they use far more data than someone who primarily streams and downloads over a fixed home connection.

The second driver is that mobile data isn’t just for mobile devices. Cellular modems are becoming more common for home use. You get a Wi-Fi router as usual, and hook up to all your devices, only the router connects to the internet over the 4G or 5G network instead of over cable or fiber.

5G cell tower

Getty Images

Both of these are related. In some developing countries, telcos skipped landlines and went straight to mobile telephone networks, because building out mobile infrastructure is cheaper and easier than running cables. 

Broadband mobile internet is similar in concept, and it’s not just developing countries. In the US, many rural areas lack fast internet connections.

“There are major efforts to close the ‘digital divide’ between those of us more and less privileged,” says Cole. “Domestically, major telecommunications companies such as T-Mobile,Verizon, and AT&T are investing massive resources to bring 5G to rural and underserved areas.”

Faster Than Ever

5G deployment is way faster than 3G and 4G ever was. “5G subscriptions are estimated to reach 1 billion [users] 2 years earlier than 4G,” says Ericsson’s report.

“By the end of 2026, we forecast 3.5 billion 5G subscriptions globally, accounting for around 40 percent of all mobile subscriptions at that time.”

Yet for most of us, 5G is still little more than a buzzword. We know it exists, but we either don’t yet have local coverage, or we don’t really care about it. After all, 4G is plenty for TikTok and Instagram. 

That’s because faster internet isn’t really the point. Carriers are rushing out 5G because they stand to benefit quite a bit. They can, for instance, offer those rural 5G home connections without having to build out cabled networks—just like the phone networks in rural Africa back in the 2000s. 

"By the end of 2026, we forecast 3.5 billion 5G subscriptions globally, accounting for around 40 percent of all mobile subscriptions at that time."

Also, many of the devices connecting to 5G won’t be computers as we think of them. 5G’s low latency connections are perfect for smart, Internet of Things (IoT) devices. 

This includes tracking devices, smart meters (for metering your electricity or water, for example), but the massive data capabilities of 5G also allow for remote control of vehicles, for teachers to video conference with kids in rural parts of Africa, and for doctors in developing countries to quickly send x-ray images, for instance, back and forth.

Expensive?

One big barrier to 5G as a primary internet connection is cost. In the US especially, telcos like to limit data use and charge a premium for mobile data. 

Without government regulation, those practices are unlikely to change. But if 5G becomes the main way most devices get onto the internet, then we could see some weird side effects.

Remember how long-distance landline calls used to be expensive? Or how you had to pay for local calls, and pay 10-cents a pop to send (and receive!) an SMS? Perhaps home cable connections will go the same way, and one day even a fiber internet connection will be as quaint as having a landline telephone is today. Wouldn’t that be neat?

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