China Mobile racked up 15.4 million 5G customers in the first four months after launch, to the end of February, the company disclosed in its annual results today.
But the flying start in next-generation mobile has not been enough to help the giant operator escape the clutches of low growth and flat profits that are dogging the industry.
Releasing the results on Thursday, Chairman Yang Jie said China Mobile had faced "a challenging and complicated operating environment in 2019 where the upside of data traffic was rapidly diminishing and competition ... was becoming ever more intense."
Like other Chinese operators, it was under continued government pressure to deliver higher fixed and mobile bandwidth at lower prices.
Net income fell 9.5% to 106.8 billion yuan ($15 billion), primarily because of a spike in financing costs – up from RMB144 million ($20.2 million) to RMB3.25 billion ($460 million).
Operating revenue was just 1.2% higher, at RMB745.9 billion ($104.8 billion), while telecom services revenue improved by a paltry 0.5%.
The company did record some positive numbers: EBITDA was up 7.4%, to RMB296 billion ($41.6 billion) and the EBITDA margin was 39.7%, 2.3 percentage points higher.
It also reported growth in key segments such as corporate data center and IT services, which increased sales 48%, to RMB26 billion ($3.7 billion). International business division sales rose 31%, while revenues at the mobile cloud business were up 59%.
It added 25.21 million mobile customers in the year to reach 950 million in total. Its wireline broadband customer base grew by 30.35 million, hitting 187 million.
The report doesn't cover the COVID-19 outbreak, which began in January, but Yang said one of the priorities for 2020 was to overcome the impact of the contagion on the 5G rollout.
He noted that the epidemic had driven more and more businesses and consumers online and encouraged greater takeup of digital and cloud-based services.
"We will leverage these opportunities, as well as the 5G network, to further develop the information and communications services market."
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading