September 25, 2020
The China 5G train rolls on, with more than 110 million subscribers and 560,000 basestations, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).
The subscriber figure might be well short of the totals declared by operators, who like to include 4G customers on 5G plans, but it is still almost ten times the combined tally of the rest of the world.
Yet despite the huge numbers the industry is still in search of any uplift from new services.
China Mobile reported earlier this week that it had reached 98.2 million "5G package customers" in August, up 13.1 million from July, while China Telecom had clocked 57.1 million subs, almost 8 million higher.
The third player, China Unicom, says it won't disclose its 5G subscribers until its network is more mature.
So while the two operators are keen to claim 150 million 5G subs, in reality just 94 million 5G handsets were shipped in the first eight months of the year, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT).
In fact, China operators' headlong sprint into 5G hasn't led to any gains in a market that is, after two decades of growth, reaching saturation.
China Mobile's net subscriber tally shrank by 473,000 last month and China Unicom's by 1.62 million. Unicom's net mobile subs total has contracted by nearly 10 million since the beginning of the year.
In its interim results announced in August, covering eight months since the launch of 5G last November, China Mobile reported a further decline in average revenue per user (ARPU).
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Zhu Huimin, vice president of wireless marketing for Huawei, delivered an inside perspective at an industry event last week.
She said that while success in enterprise will be essential to 5G, commercial success also needs to be built on consumer apps.
Zhu cited figures from South Korean operators, noting they had based their 5G business cases primarily on consumer services and had invested heavily in areas like AR/VR, with compelling new apps such as 360-degree live broadcast.
As a result, data consumption has risen threefold and the number of AR/VR users has increased five times.
By contrast, China's AR/VR development was still some way behind, Zhu said.
While the industry was incubating some AR/VR applications similar to those created in South Korea, she didn't expect these to go mainstream until 2022 or 2023.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading
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