China might be crushing it in 5G, but the rapid rollout is also widening its digital divide.
According to the latest MIIT figures, Chinese operators have deployed 480,000 5G basestations – that's at least twice as much as the rest of the world combined.
But these basestations serve a tiny proportion of potential users. Shenzhen has 45,000, Beijing 44,000 and Shanghai 56,000. In other words, 30% of China's basestation population serves 4% of its human population.
It makes sense that operators, who are publicly traded stocks as well as state-controlled enterprises, should invest in the more profitable areas first.
But the unbalanced rollout somewhat undermines claims that 5G will unlock innovation through mass proliferation. It will be years before it will be affordably available to the vast majority of users.
It also raises questions about who or what exactly 5G is for.
The yawning digital gap is not new, but there is a certain lack of official curiosity about it.
One of the few available figures is that optical fiber reaches 98% of China's administrative villages. While seemingly impressive, it is misleading.
An administrative village can be as large as 5,000 sq km. A village may be connected to the rest of the country by a fiber trunk link but that doesn't mean households within the area enjoy broadband access.
We get a better sense from subscriber numbers. At the end of May, 273 million people, or around 17% of the total user base, were still using 2G.
That is despite the availability of dozens of sub-1,000 yuan phones and mobile operator subsidies to attract them onto 4G.
The main reason is the lack of a network. In another vague but unhelpful aggregate number, 98% of the population supposedly has access to 4G. In reality, coverage is not contiguous or reliable in many rural areas.
One academic who studies the problem, Jack Chan Wing-kit, associate professor of the school of government at Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, says the pandemic has exposed the scale of the divide.
"In rural areas, people live in bungalows that are widely spread out. It is not economically efficient for phone service providers like China Mobile to install transmission stations there, which explain their spotty coverage," he told scmp.com.
"In poor areas, a family [often] has to share one mobile phone among all members."
Chan also points out that whereas the Internet in some European countries is considered a necessity, that is not so for China policymakers.
China's "new infrastructure" program, unveiled earlier this year and intended to spark the post-pandemic recovery, promises hundreds of billions in spending on 5G, data centers and other big-ticket projects, but nothing on improving digital equality.
Improving Internet access is left to the industry which, as we have seen, is dominated by the profit-driven operators.
There is no sign the divide will narrow soon.
The most recent Tencent Digital China Index, issued in May last year, found the gap is widening. In 2018 the 18 wealthiest cities grew their share of the digital economy, while the 249 poorest cities' share declined by three percentage points.
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— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading