5G has been one of the great slowburners of technological development. The fifth generation of mobile carrier infrastructure can trace its origins all the way back to 2008, when South Korea launched an R&D programme looking at next-gen mobile tech – several years before most countries had even rolled out 4G.

In fact, we’ve been talking up the arrival of 5G ever since 4G arrived. Faster speeds, vastly increased capacity for more devices, the prospect of all internet connections going wireless – much of the past decade has felt like a waiting game in hot anticipation of the 5G revolution.

For a variety of reasons we have had to be patient. The first commercial 5G networks were eventually rolled out across Europe in 2019. Then it was a case of waiting for manufacturers to catch up with releases of 5G-ready phones.

Three years on and 5G phones now account for a major chunk of the global mobile market. But what about refurbished 5G phones?

Replacement cycle

Consumers looking to grab a bargain by buying pre-owned 5G phones have had to wait even longer. As we see repeatedly with every new handset release cycle, availability of refurbished models lags behind new devices, usually by a minimum of 12 months.

This is because supply of refurbished phones depends on the replacement cycle – people trading in their existing mobile phone for an upgrade. With the very latest releases, it usually takes at least a year before phone owners start to swap them – usually when the next round of new phones are launched. And even then, it can take longer for pre-owned handsets of recent models to appear on the refurbished market in significant numbers.

This has certainly been the case with 5G phones. The refurbished market has had to wait for sales of new 5G handsets to make a significant dent in the market before pre-owned devices become widely available.

We’re starting to get there. In 2020, 5G phones accounted for 12% of new handset sales. By 2022, that had more than doubled in leading developed markets. And the trend is expected to continue in 2022, with 5G sales accounting for 50% of the market, or around 900 million shipments of 5G phones.

That means we’re approaching a tipping point. Nearly every new phone release includes a 5G version. With most carriers now operating 5G networks, consumers are readily switching to the new technology. More 5G phones in circulation means more collateral for the refurbished market.

For now, ongoing 5G adoption will see more older generation phones available to buy second hand as more and more people upgrade. But there’s no doubt 5G devices are starting to enter the pre-owned market in larger volumes. Early adopters are starting to upgrade their first 5G handsets for more recent models.

As availability of refurbished 5G models continues to climb, prices will also drop. By the end of 2022, it’s likely that a significant proportion of enquiries for refurbished phones will be for 5G models. Our advice to retailers would be to start planning to add 5G phones to your refurbished range in time for the peak season later this year.