China's 5G is a domestic affair

Statistically speaking, China rules 5G: It has 70% of the basestations, 80% of the subscribers and holds the most 5G-related patents.

Operators have deployed 993,000 basestations, covering all 300 prefecture-level cities and a third of all rural townships, according to Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) figures. Some 460 handsets have been licensed for network access, 392 million customers have signed up for 5G service and more than 150 million 5G phones shipped in the first seven months of the year.

Chinese IP also accounts for 38% of the 5G standard-essential patents, more than any other country, the MIIT says. If you attended the World 5G Convention in Beijing last week this blizzard of China 5G stats would be familiar to you.

It was very much a China event, despite the name, co-organized by the MIIT and the Ministry of Science and Technology with only token foreign participation. Even in the session entitled "international seminar on future ICTs," just two out of the 27 presenters were non-Chinese.

The 5G numbers are impressive, but they are also the same metrics updated every month and offer limited insight into the performance of the network and the 5G business. We don't know how much of the population is covered, for example – a standard measure in every other market – and if there is any kind of international benchmarking of network speeds it is a well-kept secret.

All of which goes to remind us that, like the conference itself, China's 5G development is very much a domestic affair.

The US entity list and the tech war might seem the obvious culprits here, but more likely it is the Chinese telecom sector reverting to type. It has always been a tightly held, secretive industry and now it no longer needs foreign expertise it has become even more so.

Li Meng, a vice-minister from the Ministry Science and Technology, made a speech about welcoming collaboration from entrepreneurs and researchers from all over the world, but without any specifics it is just conference boilerplate.

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There would be hundreds of businesses and researchers who would jump at the opportunity to work with Chinese companies on 5G, but official China could manage nothing more than warm words and hope that it might happen.

The other point of note from this event is that Huawei launched a new 5G voice working group under the 5G Deterministic Network Industry Alliance.

Nothing remarkable you would think, except that it is another overwhelmingly Chinese group in an organization whose only disclosed members are Chinese, as are the council members and heads of every committee and working group.

It is an unusual step for a global industry body and equally unusual for a globally-focused company like Huawei. The lesson seems to be yet again that when it comes to 5G China is running its own race in 5G and the rest of the world can just look on.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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