It hasn't been a good start to the year for China operators – and it's not necessarily the fault of the coronavirus.
The subs figures for January, before the virus became a national health threat, show numbers down across the board, including a hefty 39% drop in demand for new handsets.
All three operators experienced a net loss in mobile subs, despite the availability of low-cost 5G and the recent introduction of mobile number portability.
The stats, released last week, show China Mobile had lost 862,000 mobile subs, China Unicom 1.19 million and China Telecom 430,000. For Unicom, it was the fourth successive month in which net customer numbers had declined.
Analysts aren't clear on what lies behind the figures.
One view is simply that it's a sign of saturation. With 114% mobile penetration, not even 5G will be enough to deliver customer growth.
Another is that this is a sign of 5G overhanging the market.
Customers are keen on 5G, with monthly packages starting from an affordable RMB128 ($18.20) for 30GB of data. But they are turned off by the limited range of devices, their high prices and the spotty coverage.
Another theory is that subscriber numbers have been inflated by the those who have bought second and third SIMs for the additional data packages. These people are now swapping out their 4G packages and becoming single-card 5G users, taking advantage of the vastly higher data caps on the new network.
After all, despite its net loss of subs in January, China Mobile has racked up 6.74 million 5G subscriptions since the November launch. Unicom and Telecom have an estimated 2 million 5G subscribers each.
So we may be at the beginning of a trend, with the 4G customer base set to contract quickly as 5G sign-ups climb.
What is clear, though, is that the market is in a holding pattern as a result of the virus, which began on the eve of the Spring Festival break, one of the major annual shopping seasons.
This shows up in the handset sales. The device market has already been on pause since the fourth quarter ahead of the arrival of new 5G devices. According to IDC, domestic smartphone shipments were down 15.6% in the last quarter – the eleventh consecutive quarterly decline.
But in January handset sales plunged 39%, says the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT).
On the upside, CAICT's numbers do suggest some excitement about 5G. Of the 20.8 million devices shipped last month, 5.5 million were 5G-compatible.
But IDC anticipates a 40% decline in February and a year-on-year decline of more than 30% throughout the first quarter.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading