What stopped China’s 5G upgrade surge from going global?Canalys’ review and insight of H1 2021 global 5G market
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Posted on 01/09/2021
Since the start of 2020, when the COVID-19 outbreak began, the way people work, live and learn has changed significantly and irreversibly, reshaping the global mobile market.
Over the past year, smartphone vendors have increased their investment significantly to capture the accelerated organic growth of the smartphone and 5G upgrade market.
Driven by the leading vendors, worldwide 5G smartphone shipments reached 239.5 million in the first half of 2021, accounting for 36.1% of overall shipments. The majority of shipments were from Apple, with OPPO leading among the Android players. Thanks to this, consumers have an extensive range of affordable 5G smartphones to choose from.
But 5G developments vary dramatically between markets and regions. Mainland China leads in terms of 5G smartphone shipments, accounting for nearly 70% of the world’s Android 5G shipments. The success of China’s 5G smartphone market is thanks to its rapid deployment of 5G infrastructure, driven by the government. It is also supported by a strong team of local device vendors and the world’s most committed telecoms operators. 5G subscription numbers are a key performance indicator for Chinese telcos since services launched at the end of 2019. Telecoms operators have been relentlessly driving users to upgrade through nationwide marketing efforts and competitive tariffs (in many places, operators have stopped offering 4G tariffs, forcing 5G upgrades). There have been major efforts to encourage vendors to increase their 5G portfolios since 2020, and some have already stopped launching any new 4G products. The whole industry’s well-orchestrated efforts have accelerated consumer adoption.
But hardware vendors haven’t repeated this success outside of China. There are still concerns that have hindered large-scale 5G product roll-outs.
Firstly, consumers want to strike a balance between demand for 5G services and the total cost of 5G services. 5G tariffs remain out of reach for mass-market consumers in most overseas markets. In addition to the per-gigabyte charge, 5G will also increase data traffic and raise user costs. In Thailand, for example, while operators are cutting 5G tariffs, consumers who have been hit hard by the pandemic have less ability to pay for them. With 4G services able to meet their daily needs, most consumers feel they will only upgrade to 5G if it doesn’t mean paying more for mobile phones and telecommunications. Even in developed markets such as Western Europe, only four of the top 10 Android models sold in the first half of the year were 5G-capable.
Secondly, vendors want to control costs and risks. Component and marketing costs are critical bottlenecks in the price of 5G smartphones. In terms of component cost negotiation, procurement volumes can improve a supplier’s bargaining power on the supply side, so in a mature 5G market, such as China, achieving considerable importance is a strategic priority decision. In addition, there are hidden costs to the overseas roll-out of 5G smartphones. Differences in the entry standards for 5G smartphones in various countries can lead to additional costs, such as market entry verification and portfolio management costs.
Finally, 5G services provided by many local networks are still at an early stage, which leads to a poor consumer experience, hurting the brands and reputations of hardware manufacturers.
Among the world’s top 10 vendors, the most aggressive vendor in 5G product pricing is Realme, which has a global 5G smartphone ASP of only US$297. But for mass-market players, aggressive 5G strategies mean more significant risk. As leading players such as Samsung have yet to push for more mass-market 5G smartphones, it is reasonable and sensible for other Chinese manufacturers to take a more conservative approach in overseas markets.
Canalys expects 5G shipments to account for 87% of Mainland China’s smartphone market in 2021. The 4G installed base in the Chinese market will not be entirely replaced by 5G in the short term. 5G shipments overseas will account for only 27% in 2021 though will exceed 80% by 2025. Most overseas markets are not ready for significant uptake of 5G smartphones this year. In the post-pandemic world, mobile users and hardware vendors need more incentives from local operators to create more favorable 5G market conditions.