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China's 5G subs may be overstated by 40%

The huge gap between subscriber totals and number of devices sold shows that, for all the hype, China's 5G is still a game of giveaways.

Robert Clark

May 22, 2020

2 Min Read
China's 5G subs may be overstated by 40%

Chinese telcos are reporting 65 million 5G subscribers at the end of April, a handy 17 million increment on March.

Yet there's a huge gap between the operator totals and the number of devices sold.

Fewer than 44 million 5G phones have shipped in China since 5G began six months ago, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT).

The operator numbers don't even include China Unicom, which hasn't broken out its 5G subs. With a network on the same scale as China Telecom, it quite likely has at least 10 million 5G customers.

So the disparity between devices and subs could be as much as 30 million.

That's quite a variance.

It could mean a lot of dongles and routers are flying off the shelves. But unlike with 4G, the sales of these are so low no one bothers counting them.

The problem is with the way the operators count 5G subs.

It starts with the question: What is a 5G subscriber? Is it a customer on a 5G plan? Or someone with a 5G device experiencing 5G service?

According to China media accounts, quite a number of China Mobile customers report receiving a free upgrade to "5G premium," learning about it only through a text from the operator.

This appears to be a version of the classic razor and blade strategem – giving away a freebie in order to sell a product.

There are valid reasons for doing this, except in this case the model is inverted. Usually telcos will give away the phone, not their revenue-raising service.

We don't know the scale of the practice, but it's clear from the language in its monthly disclosures that China Mobile and China Telecom is still pushing it.

They refer to 4G subs as "customers," but 5G subs are "package customers" – obviously a reference to subscribers who are on "5G packages" but not necessarily accessing a 5G service.

No doubt it's all part of a dash to build up an early 5G lead. The telcos are betting they can lock in customers by signing them to a 5G bundle for no extra charge.

But by this logic, and now that mobile number portability is up and running, we may also see operators offering big discounts to customers on rival networks.

For all the expectations of 5G leading telcos to innovative new services, in the world's biggest market it's still a game of subsidies and giveaways.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Robert Clark

Contributing Editor, Special to Light Reading

Robert Clark is an independent technology editor and researcher based in Hong Kong. In addition to contributing to Light Reading, he also has his own blog,  Electric Speech (http://www.electricspeech.com). 

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