For the first time ever, Chinese telcos are experiencing a fall in data revenue.
In the first two months of 2021, combined sales of mobile and fixed-line data services contracted by 1.2%, official figures show.
The three operators achieved aggregate revenue of 106.2 billion yuan (US$16.2 billion), accounting for 44.7% of total operating revenue.
By comparison, in the corresponding period last year operators racked up combined data revenue of 107 billion yuan ($16.3 billion), a 4.3% improvement over 2019 and accounting for 48% of operating revenue.
Growth in demand was strong, although down from 2019, with mobile data consumption up 31% to 30.9 billion GB. For the first two months of 2020 mobile traffic grew 44%.
According to an analysis by website C114, the clue to the lower revenue is the fall in the unit price, down from 3.96 yuan per GB last year to 3.44 yuan.
Despite the nearly one-third increase in data traffic "it is impossible to conceal the fact that the rapid decline in unit prices has led to a decline in revenue," it says.
Since 2015, Chinese operators have been pressured annually by the Ministry of Industry and IT (MIIT) to drop prices in order to make Internet access more affordable and to drive the digital economy.
That led to frequent bouts of excessive price competition until mid-2019 when the MIIT negotiated a truce.
But the arrival of full 5G competition last year has rekindled the ultra-low price bundles, C114 says.
The clearest sign of this is in the raw 5G numbers. As of the end of February, the telcos were claiming 361 million 5G package subs, whereas the ministry counts just 260 million genuine 5G customers.
This huge 100 million subscriber gap is 4G customers who have been enticed to 5G plans by the low prices but are still using 4G phones.
While the problem appears in the small sample of just two months' data, there's no sign of operators pulling back in the contest to grab 5G subs.
This leaves the MIIT somewhat conflicted. Officials love to be able to report the record-breaking 5G numbers, but they also understand they must ensure operators can generate profits that attract investors and fund future network expansion.
It seems only a matter of time before the MIIT steps in and brokers another peace agreement.
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