3G Nears Reality in China
That would be long-awaited news for Western telecom equipment makers who have placed big bets, in the form of partnerships with mainland operators and suppliers, on the 3G rollout in the People's Republic. It would also mean that, in some form, the new 3G services could still be ready in time for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, on August 8, 2008.
"Now, after at least two years of delay, 3G's moment of truth in China may be only a few months -- or even weeks -- away," wrote Hong Kong-based Dow Jones columnist Jon Ogden earlier this week.
"The 'test' networks in China are already pretty big," says Nomura International global communications equipment analyst Richard Windsor. "It will not take nearly as much time to get 3G up and running in the vicinity of the Olympics as one would have thought."
Anticipated since news of a TD-SCDMA joint venture between Datang Mobile Communications Equipment Co. Ltd. and Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE) became public in 1999, China's 3G rollout could mean a huge bonanza for Western suppliers, resulting in network investment of as much as $75 billion in the next five years, according to Deutsche Bank AG . That figure is far beyond earlier, more conservative sums that saw capital expenditures by Chinese carriers in the $12 million range over three years.
Whatever the eventual prize, the big Western equipment makers have been busily lining up partnerships with Chinese counterparts over the last two years, hoping to grab a large slice of the pie.
Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) is a 49 percent stakeholder in a $111 million joint venture with mainland wireline vendor China Putian , while rival Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) has teamed with state-owned ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763), which is seen as a leading developer of products for 3G networks based on the Chinese standard. Siemens, meanwhile has announced a partnership with Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , while Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) has signed on with Datang. (See Nokia Invests in China 3G, Ericsson Bets on Chinese 3G, Alcatel, Datang Prep TD-SCDMA, and Huawei, Siemens Push 3G Deal.)
The large sums involved in these announcements notwithstanding, they are, for the most part, only handshake deals for the moment, as vendors jockey for position in a market that has yet to take concrete shape.
"It's a minor cost to send out a press release saying you've formed a partnership," points out Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group . "It's not like the taxi meter is ticking -- you've really just got some salary costs, the overhead of setting up an office, and some travel expenses sending people out there. It's minor compared to the potential payoff."
That payoff could be huge for the winners, though the road to 3G in the world's largest telecommunications market has been neither smooth nor rapid.
Combining older TDMA with the Time-Division Duplexing method of broadcasting over a single chunk of spectrum, rather than the normal two bands, Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access (TD-SCDMA) technology was developed by the Chinese Academy of Telecommunications Technology and has been approved by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) . China's Ministry of Information Industry set TD-SCDMA as a national standard in January 2006, and it was thought at the time that carrier licenses could be issued within a few months. In February a timeline for deployment of the networks was issued, calling for trials to be complete by June. The testing has been delayed but is now thought to be almost complete. Chinese carriers, foreign investors, and telecom equipment vendors are eagerly awaiting the actual roll-out. (See China's 3G Gets Green Light.)
Speculation about reasons for the delay has ranged from engineering problems with the Chinese technology to the government's desire to tightly control the resulting high-speed data networks.
"The short answer is, I don't know" why the process has taken so long, Stephen Falk, vice president for international strategy and business development at Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), told the Interfax China news agency last week. "I meet with government officials from time to time and I believe they are sincere about believing the Chinese market may not be ready for 3G."
With less than 22 months left before the Games begin, the window for installing widespread 3G networks is closing fast -- but that doesn't mean that some form of 3G won't be available at the Olympic venues.
"China intends to use the Beijing Olympics as a showcase for their technology adoption, and this would include not only one or more 3G networks but also a broadcast mobile TV network," says Charles Golvin, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "To achieve this goal they certainly don't need a country-wide deployment, and it's not unfathomable that such a network could be built in time for the Olympics."
And that would sound like the ka-ching of cash registers to Western suppliers, who've been waiting on the sidelines for nearly six years.
— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung