As China telecom execs and officials embark on the annual Lunar New Year exodus this week, they can look back on a year in which 5G landed with a bang, portability arrived and the broadband market flattened out.
From the moment the MIIT issued 5G licenses in June, six months ahead of schedule, 5G dominated.
By year end, the three telcos were offering service in 50 cities, with 130,000 basestations deployed, around 10 million subscribers signed up and 13.8 million handsets shipped.
The three telcos and China Tower Corporation invested more than 360 billion yuan ($52 billion) over the year, including RMB41 billion ($5.9 billion) on 5G, according to MIIT figures. Total mobile subs reached 1.6 billion and fixed-line access users reached 450 million.
In the coming Year of the Rat, 5G will again occupy a good deal of attention.
MIIT chief Miao Wei says the priority is to get 5G up to scale and to speed up the transition to standalone. China Mobile has set out some specific targets for 2020: it will roll out service to 340 cities and aims to move to commercial standalone in the fourth quarter.
But questions surround the under-funded new 5G licensee, the national cable MSO China Broadcast Network (CBN).
In the wake of the China Telecom-China Unicom 5G sharing agreement, which promises to save billions, officials are keen to see more joint rollouts.
So CBN has been in discussions with China Mobile, but also with the national electricity utility, State Grid –- the latter bringing nearly 3 million tower sites as well as deep pockets to the table. Quite possibly, CBN will choose both as infrastructure partners. (See China's Newest Operator Now Has 2 Suitors.)
After several years of fast growth, the home broadband market has slowed down, with all three operators registering a net loss in customers in December.
Most likely this is the result of mobile number portability, introduced in late November, which forced the unbundling of fixed and mobile packages. (See Chinese Operators Invest $427M in Number Portability Prep.)
This struck a blow to China Unicom in particular: It lost nearly 3 million mobile subs in December and 2 million fixed-line subs in the last two months of the year.
It is now a distant third in the broadband market and, with market prices already at a low after several years of cuts, Unicom has few options this year.
Its rivals are investing heavily. Both Mobile and Telecom expanded their gigabit fiber networks in 2019, with China Mobile claiming 70% of its network is now gigabit-capable.
The three telcos have all set out plans for smart home and smart platforms –- it remains to be seen whether these will get traction.
While 5G is sucking up a lot of oxygen, work on 6G is already underway. The MIIT says China has been researching the next mobile generation since 2017. (See China's Boffins Set Out Their 6G Vision.)
At a conference in September, a China Mobile researcher described 6G as "self-generating, self-governing and self-evolving," embracing holographic communication, brain-computer interface and taste and touch over a network ten to 100 times faster than 5G.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading