China's newest operator has finally revealed details of its 5G buildout -- and those have drawn attention to a big gap between it and its telco rivals.
China Broadcast Network (CBN), the national cable TV network monopoly, has just begun its first trial -- a standalone 5G pilot network in central Shanghai, announced last week by the Shanghai city government.
By contrast, its three rival operators, which have rolled out extensive 5G networks, are close to starting commercial service.
According to one report, they have already signed up 5 million customers in pre-orders.
CBN was a surprise new entrant to mobile when the MIIT issued 5G licenses in June. The company, owned by the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), was set up just five years ago.
It has nowhere near the financial scale of the telcos, with total revenues last year of RMB78 billion (US$10.9 billion) -- around a third of China Unicom's and a fifth of China Telecom's.
According to broadcast industry website DVBCN, besides the Shanghai trial, CBN is planning build pilot networks in 15 or so major cities, such as Beijing, Tianjin and Nanjing.
As in Shanghai, these will be standalone 5G networks in the 4.9GHz band. The company expects to deploy 200 basestations in each city at an estimated total cost of RMB2-3 billion ($279-419 million).
Beyond that, the rollout timetable becomes unclear. Reportedly, it will deploy in "dozens of large and medium-sized cities" in 2020 and then begin preparations for commercial launch.
What is missing is any sign of a network-sharing arrangement with one of the established operators.
In an acknowledgement that 5G was too big for either of them to do alone, China Telecom and China Unicom struck a sharing agreement last month, dividing up the rollout more or less equally.
Both the operators, as well as rival China Mobile, have tried to woo CBN: While the new kid on the block may be small, it has two attractive assets.
One is its access to cable TV content -- highly appealing to operators with huge capacity networks to fill.
The other, probably even more valuable, is its unique cache of 700MHz spectrum.
Given the lack of 700MHz devices, it's understandable the spectrum hasn't so far been deployed for trials. But CBN has yet even to explain how it will use those frequencies.
In one of its few statements to date, the NRTA has talked about building a 5G network that integrates broadcasting, HD-TV, IoT and smart city services.
What it all points to is an under-funded and under-prepared company that needs a partner.
But the history and politics between the telecom and cable sectors -- traditionally run by rival ministries -- means agreement with one or more telcos is by no means guaranteed.
For the foreseeable future, China's 5G looks to be a three-tier race, with China Mobile in the lead, Telecom and Unicom in the chasing pack, and CBN at least 12 months behind.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading