While Chinese telcos prep for the world's largest and fastest 5G rollout, their customers are seething over the apparent throttling of 4G.
China's social media has been running hot this week with discussion about what users are convinced is the slowing down of LTE networks.
One discussion on the Weibo platform has been viewed more than 130 million times with more than 12,000 comments.
One prized piece of "evidence" is a screenshot, apparently from an unnamed operator, that advises employees the 4G download rate had been dialed back to 100 Mbit/s and that this should not be revealed to customers.
Another major accelerant to the online conflagration is the belief that operators are deliberately choking off LTE speeds to drive people to 5G.
While such consumer skepticism is hardly new, this outpouring is unusual both for its massive scale and for the passion Chinese consumers display for their mobile data.
It is hard to imagine users in such numbers anywhere else venting over slower LTE, especially on such thin evidence.
The problem was not helped by the unwillingness of operator executives to reassure their customers.
Reporters were reduced to quoting local customer service representatives as "denying" throttling.
Fortunately, there has been no shortage of experts able to provide an explanation.
Broadly, they agree that speeds probably have reduced, but it has very little to do with 5G.
One factor is the heavy price competition over the past four years, in which operators have moved to offering unlimited data packages. As one expert noted, "people are not even bothering with WiFi any more."
But operators have fought back by imposing data caps and throttles. A typical package might offer a very generous 20 gigabytes for 99 yuan ($14) a month -- and then dial speed back to 1 Mbit/s when the cap has been reached.
A bigger reason is no doubt 4G saturation -- one of the major drivers everywhere of 5G adoption.
As an analysis originally posted on the Bejing tech news site Zhonguancun Online points out, China has 1.24 billion 4G users.
"So many users are rushing to use a limited number of basestations, and the network speed is naturally getting slower and slower," it says.
The steep price cuts have played a part here, too, enticing many users away from 2G and 3G. China Mobile alone has nearly 200 million non-4G users.
"Not only is the basestations' bearer capacity saturated, but there is also a problem that operators are also gradually implementing the phase-out of 2G and 3G basestations," the report noted.
So until the 5G networks reach scale, "the 4G experience will continue to decline," it added.
Another analyst notes that last year China was ranked 37th worldwide in mobile download speeds with an average speed of just 22 Mbit/s -- a long way short of the claimed new upper limit of 100 Mbit/s that excited the punters on social media.
The final rebuttal is that 5G networks today are so sparse.
The three operators have deployed more than 3.7 million 4G stations. By comparison, China Mobile is aiming to build 50,000 5G sites by year end.
By the middle of the week the affair had largely died down and telco bosses are likely congratulating themselves on a bullet dodged. But it could all have been avoidable -- if only they could bring themselves to talk to their customers.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading