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Forecast: mmWave smartphones critical mass after 2023

June 10, 2021

The 5G smartphone market is becoming the most accelerated mobile technology generation ever, offering an extensive opportunity across the network options of both 5G sub-6 Gigahertz (GHz) and mmWave, which can enable ultra-fast data throughput using very short-range networks. However, up until now, the use of mmWave in smartphones has been limited at best, but this is about to change.

According to ABI Research’s 5G Mobile Devices, Features, and Technologies: Vendors, Trends, and Forecasts market data report, the global 5G smartphones market is set to show phenomenal growth in 2021, reaching over 500 million units, driven by an acceleration down the price tiers improving affordability and adoption. Forming an integral part of this volume is the expected rise in shipments of mmWave-enabled phones, accounting for 25 per cent of 5G sales in 2021 compared to less than 7 per cent in 2020, growing to command a 43 per cent share by 2026.

It was not so long ago that the practical use of 5G NR mmWave technology in mobile devices had been severely challenging, mainly owing to the significant restrictions of limited network coverage and being overtly costly to implement. “Despite these initial market concerns, many technology barriers have since been overcome. Now 5G mmWave in smartphones is set to grow extensively in 2021 and beyond, driven by its use in Apple’s latest iPhones destined mainly for the company’s important US market,” explains David McQueen, Research Director at ABI Research. “The underlying complexity and added cost that mmWave brings have been incrementally addressed using an evolved system approach and rapid miniaturisation of fully integrated RF module designs, presently led by Qualcomm. Such an approach has helped bring mmWave to compact smartphone industrial designs while improving performance, latency, reliability, and efficiency.”

Implementing mmWave technology in tight combination with 5G New Radio (NR) sub-6 GHz and dual connectivity with LTE can provide new business opportunities and enhanced mobile experiences while supporting advanced mobility features. The rise in 5G mmWave smartphone sales will not only be boosted by its inclusion in greater numbers of smartphone models, driven by Samsung’s flagships and Apple’s iPhone 12 SKUs, but also by expanding ecosystem momentum. From a slow start, mainly limited to the US market, the impetus behind mobile mmWave continues to build as many regions target deployments, broadening across North America, Europe, and Asia, led by operators in Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Australia, with China expected to enrol in early 2022.

Despite the continued growth of mmWave in smartphones, the feature is not expected to hit a critical mass of shipments in 2021. It will take time to migrate from the high-end to mid-range because of the still prohibitive costs and effect on user experiences, and so it is unlikely to hit the low-end smartphone sector over the forecast period. “There is expected to be a mmWave smartphone sales inflection point by 2023 as it is predicted that by this stage, mobile operators will need to extend their 5G network capacity and performance beyond sub-6GHz, forcing many to turn to mmWave. From here, the market is to see momentum swing toward mmWave, and a notable uptick in available smartphone models, as it quickly becomes the only potential option to increase 5G capacity and provide an extension in performance,” concludes McQueen.



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