LONDON -- Global Mobile Broadband Forum 2017 -- China Mobile is confident it will have 10,000 5G basestations in commercial deployment in 2020 and has said it needs the next-generation technology to cope with soaring volumes of data traffic on its mobile networks.
The company, which operates China's biggest 4G network, will kick off a large-scale 5G trial next year before it launches the technology commercially two years later, said Guangyi Liu, the wireless chief technology officer for China Mobile's research unit, during this week's Global Mobile Broadband Forum in London.
The timetable, some details of which have previously been announced, makes China Mobile Communications Corp. one of the most ambitious telcos in the world when it comes to 5G technology. Some operators in North America and other parts of Asia aim to bring 5G to market in 2019, or even late next year, but none serves as many customers as China Mobile, which had nearly 622 million 4G subscribers on its books at the end of September.
The operator has provided relatively few details of its 5G plans but has indicated that its trials are based on the use of 3.5GHz spectrum, which is also likely to support the first launches of 5G technology in parts of Europe. China Mobile is also working on installing software-upgradeable hardware before 5G standards have been fully locked down.
Under a plan that was approved in March, the 3GPP standards group is set to freeze the new radio specifications for 5G technology at the end of this year. That announcement prompted several operators to push for a 5G launch in 2019 rather than 2020, as they had originally intended. (See 3GPP Approves Plans to Fast Track 5G NR.)
Consulting firm Northstream says operators are already upgrading legacy sites to be "5G-ready" by rolling out software-upgradeable baseband equipment. That step accounts for between 40% and 50% of the 5G radio site costs, it reckons. The next moves will be to install massive MIMO antennas, carry out software upgrades and even look at virtualizing the radio access network, according to Bengt Nordström, Northstream's CEO.
However, with 10,000 basestations, China Mobile's 5G network seems unlikely to provide widespread coverage in 2020. Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) has previously indicated that it may need up to 50,000 tower sites to cover Germany -- whose landmass is just 4% that of China's -- with 5G networks. (See DT Is Not Going Radio Gaga About 5G.)
Amid growing concern about the business case for investment in 5G technology, Guangyi Liu said that China Mobile faced "ever increasing data demands" and was under pressure from regulatory and market forces.
"The regulator requires operators to reduce charges for customers but also increase data rates, and operators are starting to promote unlimited data for customers," he said.
Even so, he acknowledged that investment in capacity would not deliver returns and that China Mobile needed to find new business models to boost revenues. It is already working on trials of edge computing with Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, and exploring potential 5G opportunities in assisted driving and industrial control systems.
While much of the 5G focus this year has been on the new radio specifications, operators at this week's show said they would not be able to address 5G demands in the enterprise sector without progress on network slicing and the virtualization of core network equipment.
Some telcos have this week downplayed the immediate 5G commercial opportunity. BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) Chief Executive Gavin Patterson noted that he and other operator CEOs are "struggling to pin down the business case" for 5G, while Johan Wibergh, Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD)'s chief technology officer, urged the industry to focus on the efficiency benefits of 5G in discussions with investors. (See Vodafone CTO: 5G Is Overhyped & It's Mainly About Cost.)
Earlier today, China Mobile claimed to have demonstrated a 5G new radio system that is fully interoperable during data connection trials with China's ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763) and US chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM).
"The achievement of end-to-end 5G NR interoperable connection testing, compliant with the 3GPP 5G NR standard, is an important milestone," said Li Zhengmao, China Mobile's vice president, in a company statement.
— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading