The world is about to change for Chinese telcos and it has nothing to do with 5G.
The three operators are under orders from the national government to introduce nationwide mobile number portability (MNP) by November 30.
With a little over a month to go, they've completed trials and are now ramping up their marketing strategies.
With the 5G launch also imminent over the next month, 5G offers are integral to each operator's pitch.
But the battle goes beyond 5G. Despite the 10 million advance orders for the new service, that pales into insignificance against the 1.6 billion services that are now vulnerable to a shift in allegiance.
The industry has been wrestling with MNP since 2010, reportedly frustrated by porting problems that were not solved until this year.
Following the completion of provincial trials in September, a national pilot will run from early November ahead of the launch, Xinhua news service reports.
Some limited data has emerged from the trials, with more than 2.3 million users switching providers. China Telecom was the biggest winner, gaining 506,000 subscribers, and China Mobile the biggest loser, with a loss of 535,000.
For the first half of the year, the MNP portings helped drive monthly subscriber growth for China Telecom and China Unicom to more than 20%, but that figure is now down to just 4%.
China Unicom, the smallest operator, is the most aggressive in pitching to MNP customers.
It has come up with several bundles, from RMB199 ($28) a month for 40GB and 1,000 voice minutes down to a RMB39 package that is zero-rated for services from Tencent, a Unicom shareholder and owner of social media site WeChat.
But there are reasons to believe a lot of customers won't move.
One is China Mobile's retention strategy. It's come up with the concept of offering free data based on how long people have been customers. After one week, 100 million had signed up to the promotion, a China Mobile exec told the cctime.com website.
The other is industry rules that will limit portings. Customers cannot leave during a contract period, while MNP is also out of bounds to MVNO customers and those who are in a family package, in a broadband bundle or in certain number ranges.
Analyst Fu Liang told Xinhua there already isn't much to differentiate the operators, and in recent months their tariffs, including 5G, have begun to converge.
If differentiated prices, coverage and customer service don't drive users' willingness to switch, "it is almost inevitable that MNP will be 'big thunder, small rain,'" he told Xinhua.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading