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China operators take small virus hit as they rack up big 5G numbers

The China telco Q1 results this week offer the chance of an early read on both the coronavirus and 5G.

The three Chinese players were the first to deal with the virus, each taking a small hit.

They are also posting some nosebleed 5G numbers.

China Telecom is reporting 16.6 million subscribers and China Mobile 31.7 million. While most of the world has barely dipped its toe into 5G, they have raced to nearly 50 million subs. And China Unicom hasn't even disclosed yet.

Away from the meteoric 5G stats, they have eked out mostly flat results with some small gains – not too different from the numbers we've become accustomed to in recent times.

In the last 24 hours, China Telecom has announced a 2.2% decline in profit on a 1.4% fall in revenue, while rival China Unicom reported a 14% slump in earnings with total sales 0.9% higher.

Earlier this week China Mobile reported sales off 1.4% and a 2.2% lower profit.

It's worth digging into their filings to see how much they've been impacted by COVID-19 and 5G.

The pandemic shut down a good deal of the country for six weeks and in particular wiped out the Lunar New Year shopping period, the biggest annual sales spike.

That shows up most obviously in operators' non-service revenue, which is mostly handset and IoT device sales and typically accounts for roughly a tenth of the total. The segment declined 35% year-on-year for China Mobile, 58% for China Telecom and 13% for China Unicom.

But at the same time, China's high-speed networks kept the economy going during the lockdown, right? That must show up in the data somewhere.

If it did, it would be most likely in the broadband segment.

But there's no leap in subscriptions or ARPU. China Unicom signed up a healthy 1.4 million new subs and China Mobile 4.1 million – that's double the previous quarter, but last year it averaged a net 2.5 million each month. Meanwhile, China Telecom lost 800,000 customers and China Mobile's broadband ARPU shrank from 33.0 in the December quarter to 31.9.

Perhaps in a mobile-intensive market the surge in teleworking shows up on the mobile side. Again, the data is inconclusive.

China Mobile reported a 46% year-on-year rise in aggregate mobile traffic. But that pales by comparison to its previous two Q1s, having enjoyed hefty increases of 172% in 2019 and 139% in 2018.

While the coronavirus did not deliver a bump in sales, it also created some additional cost. China Unicom saw a 44% blowout in general expenses in part from bad debt arising from the virus outbreak.

Let's turn to 5G. In the first couple of quarters, South Korean 5G operators recorded a burst in data consumption as customers moved to big new packages.

You might think that China Mobile, with more 5G customers than the non-Chinese world combined, might also enjoy a little spike – but alas, no.

While DOU is up 46% to a healthy 8.3GB, that's also well shy of the growth in previous years – 162% in Q1 2019 and 123% in Q1 2018.

Most likely it will take until the next quarter before 5G shows up in the bottom line of any Chinese telco.

The slightly disappointing news is that the WFH pivot didn't create a broadband boom. On the upside, the China verdict is that COVID-19 didn't do much damage.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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