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Asia

China 5G race taking its toll on operators

Chinese authorities have finally cleared up one of the mysteries of the 5G age: Exactly how many 5G subs does it have?

The answer is 260 million at the end of February, regulator MIIT revealed this week in one of its monthly stat dumps.

It's a big number and far more than the rest of the world combined, but still a long way short of the 361 million claimed by the three operators.

Looks can be deceiving: Not all of China's telcos 5G subscribers are actually using 5G. (Source: 偉宗 勞 on Unsplash)
Looks can be deceiving: Not all of China's telcos 5G subscribers are actually using 5G.
(Source: 偉宗 勞 on Unsplash)

This is because of their practice of selling and counting "5G packages," which include customers using 4G as well as 5G devices. For the record, in February China Mobile counted 173.2 million package customers, China Telecom 103.4 million and China Unicom 84.5 million.

Blow it up

While inflating official statistics is something of a national sport, in this case the operators' higher numbers are intended to show their bosses how fast they are growing 5G, a technology expected to drive the digital economy in the next decade.

Hence the aggressive rollouts, with some 780,000 base stations deployed to provide deep coverage in tier one cities and basic coverage at least in around 300 cities.

The three telcos' annual filings over the past two weeks indicate that between them they spent a hefty 173 billion yuan ($26.5 billion) on 5G and they're not slowing down; they've set aside another 185 billion yuan for 2021.

Their pricing, with plenty of encouragement from government officials, is also aggressive, with China Mobile's 5G entry package costing just 128 yuan ($19.56). The heavy investment and the moderate pricing in pursuit of national objectives is why their results indicate little reward for the effort so far.

Swings and roundabouts

That's especially true for China Mobile, which managed a 1% rise in profit but, despite the huge 5G subs base, recorded another decline in mobile ARPU.

By contrast China Unicom and China Telecom, both of whom say nearly a quarter of customers are on 5G plans, showed some signs of progress.

China Unicom boosted ARPU 4%, while China Telecom reported 5G ARPU nearly 50% above its blended ARPU.

One winner for China Mobile was broadband access, which grew 17%, while China Telecom and China Unicom both experienced big bumps in their smart home services.


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Encouragingly for their ambitions in 5G verticals, the enterprise segment grew strongly as Chinese businesses embrace digital transformation. China Mobile's new apps and info services grew 22% while China Telecom's industry cloud business expanded 58%, with enterprise now accounting for more than a fifth of sales.

China Unicom's business services revenue grew nearly a third and now accounts for 16% of revenue, nearly double the level two years ago. One thing that didn't change in 2020 was China Mobile's dominance of the telecom market, accounting for 52% of revenue and 76% of net profit.

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— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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