China Broadband Seeks Path Back to Profit

After years of giveaways, China Mobile is leading the China broadband market back to something that resembles sustainable competition.

It's not hard to see why.

Broadband average revenue per user (ARPU) at the big telco was a meager 35 Chinese yuan ($4.95) in the first half of the year. China Telecom and China Unicom aren't much better off, recording full-year ARPU of RMB44.3 and RMB44.6 respectively in 2018.

Since winning a fixed broadband license six years ago, China Mobile has gone after customers with ultra-low prices and fixed-mobile packages.

That includes free broadband subscriptions to existing mobile customers; there are no rules against bundling or predatory pricing.

It overtook China Telecom last year to become the biggest player by subscriber numbers. It had 185 million customers at September 30, up 28 million since January 1.

The telecom regulator and industry department, MIIT, is also a factor in this. Officials have been relentless in demanding lower prices and faster Internet speeds from the state-owned operators.

Across the board, broadband prices have fallen 31% this year alone, according to MIIT figures.

The collateral damage in this race to the bottom has been the country's largest private broadband ISP, Great Wall Broadband, which has more than 14 million home broadband customers nationwide.

Its parent company, Dr Peng, flagged up its exit from the market in April this year.

Great Wall hasn't yet disclosed full details of its departure, but it has said it will transfer 1.25 million Beijing customers to China Unicom. Reportedly, Dr Peng has handed in its type 1 telecom facilities license and is now just licensed for value-added and data center services.

For China Mobile, after declines in both revenues and profit in the first half, Chairman Yang Jie acknowledged that it had become "increasingly difficult" to rely on traditional growth drivers.

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So it has begun to dump its free and bundled offerings and is now charging home broadband customers a RMB100 ($14.13) installation fee and a RMB300 deposit on a two-year contract.

Some branches of China Telecom and China Unicom are following suit with a RMB100 installation fee.

As analyst An Di on the C114 website points out: "Relying on low prices or even free is not a long-term solution."

Yang Jie says the company is now seeking "high-quality development" from services such as its digital set top box Mobaihe, which took in RMB6 billion ($850 million) in the first six months of the year, as well as convergence and smart home services.

There's a sense of urgency about it, not just because of the recent financial results.

After years of price-cutting it needs to generate cash from its broadband network so it can upgrade to support new services like ultra HD TV.

It also must shoulder the burden of its aggressive 5G rollout. Of its RMB166 billion ($23.47 billion) capex budget this year, 48% is allocated to mobile.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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