For all its enormous rollout and subscriber take-up, China has yet to complete the last piece in its 5G puzzle – the fourth licensee, China Broadcasting Network (CBN).
It's 14 months since the national cable broadcaster was issued 5G spectrum and three months since it agreed to a network sharing deal with China Mobile Corp., the parent of listed China Mobile Ltd.
Yet while its three operator rivals add 15,000 basestations every week, CBN is still to decide a timetable for financing, or to finalize its China Mobile partnership.
On an earnings call last week China Mobile Chairman Yang Jie ruled out a joint venture, although he said the two would begin their shared rollout next year.
Yang, who also chairs the parent company, said he was "hopeful" that both parties would soon detail arrangements of their joint network construction and content distribution.
But, he added: "This matter is still very complex, and it takes time for the entire industry chain and technology to mature. Frankly speaking, we really don't have any further plans to report to you."
Under the May agreement, CBN and China Mobile will together build and share a network using CBN's valuable 700MHz spectrum, with costs to be evenly split.
CBN will contract to China Mobile for network operation and for backhaul and transport, while China Mobile also committed to sharing its 2.6GHz 5G network on a commercial basis.
Ahead of the completion of the 5G network, China Mobile may also allow CBN access to its legacy 2G and 4G networks.
So far CBN has deployed a limited number of basestations and is carrying out small-scale testing, according to cable industry website DVBCN.
It is also waiting for the 700MHz band to be completely cleared of analog TV services, which will take until March 2021.
But its biggest problem, and no doubt the main reason for the delay, is funding. One estimate is that the 700MHz network will cost 60 billion yuan (US$8.7 billion) to roll out.
Over 2019-20 alone, the mobile operators between them are investing 221 billion on their 5G rollouts. Even the smallest, China Unicom, is tipping in 43 billion yuan ($6.2 billion).
A minnow like CBN, a unit of the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), doesn't have that kind of cash.
It's been created slowly over the past decade out of the assets of provincial-level cable TV operators. It's been a tortuous process, made worse by the decline in the traditional pay-TV business.
CBN will run a different business model from the incumbent operators, with a heavy focus on delivering TV content.
But while it won't be in direct competition with telcos, it will still be chasing many of the same 5G customers.
So time isn't on its side. It needs to raise some cash and quickly find a path into the 5G business – or surrender it to the operators.
- Losing the 5G 'race' might not matter
- China Mobile, CBN strike long-awaited network-sharing deal
- China's CBN starts 5G trials amid doubts
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading