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Over half a billion people will use 5G this year, Ericsson predicts

The networking giant also says most people around the world use more than 10GB of data each month.

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Angela Lang/CNET

Pandemic or not, 5G is still traveling the globe at high speeds. More than half a billion people will be using 5G by the end of this year -- and they're all using a lot of data, according to a new report from Ericsson.

There'll be about 580 million 5G subscriptions around the world by the end of 2021, Ericsson said in its latest mobility report, which it publishes twice a year. That's more than double 2020's level of 220 million. By the end of 2026, there should be 3.5 billion 5G subscriptions globally, making up about 40% of all subscriptions. 

And the Sweden-based maker of networking gear said the average smartphone owner uses more than 10GB of data per month. Mobile network data traffic grew 46% between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. 

"5G of course is happening ... despite the pandemic and what you could have expected over more of a slower technology evolution," Patrik Cerwall, head of strategic marketing insights at Ericsson, said in an interview ahead of the report's release. "It's actually the opposite. I think everyone sees the need for technology."

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That adds up to 1 million 5G subscribers added every day in the world, he added. 

5G started rolling out across the globe shortly before the coronavirus pandemic. While the world economy virtually ground to a halt, COVID-19 didn't stop the expansion of 5G. Instead, it made it easier for some carriers to build their networks, and the pandemic showed how vital fast connectivity is. Without it, people wouldn't be able to work from home, attend classes or meet with their doctors. As the pandemic winds down in many parts of the world, 5G's buildout is expected to continue, and it's happening faster than 4G a decade ago. 

More than 160 service providers in the world have launched 5G so far, and there are more than 300 5G phones available with the technology. The global chip shortage, which is hurting everything from cars to gaming consoles, isn't impacting 5G's uptake, Cerwall said. 

"We haven't seen the same shortages that other industries have ... seen, like in the automotive industry," Cerwall said. "Most vendors have been able to secure their share of the baseband or RF components, which basically means that the device industry impact will be limited." Baseband and RF chips are essential for connecting a device to a mobile network. 

China is still leading the way in terms of the number of people using 5G networks. Projections suggest that at the end of 2021, there'll be 404 million 5G subscribers in the country.

At the end of 2021, Northeast Asia, which also includes China, will have 450 million subscribers over a 5G network. Though China, South Korea and Japan are in the lead when it comes to 5G uptake, North America and the Gulf region should catch up in a year or two when it comes to their percentage of subscribers using 5G, Cerwall said.

By the end of 2021 In North America, there'll be 60 million 5G subscribers.