China Broadcasting Network (CBN), the newest entrant to China's mobile market, might seem an unpromising partner.
The company was a surprise recipient of a 5G license when they were awarded in early June. (See China's Early 5G Move Doesn't Erase Huawei Doubts .)
CBN was created by the cable TV ministry five years ago out of provincial cable players to compete nationally in both broadband and media.
At least that was the idea. But with paid-in capital of just 5.1 billion yuan ($720 million) it has never had the network depth or financial strength to match the big three telcos.
Last it year it achieved revenue of RMB77.9 billion ($11.1 billion). By comparison, the smallest operator, China Unicom, posted RMB275 billion ($39.1 billion).
Ironically, it is CBN's relative weakness that make it an attractive prospect.
Although it has picked up powerful partners in online commerce heavyweight Alibaba and Citic, a state-backed financial group, it can't compete in 5G on its own.
The biggest bait for the operators is its hoard of spectrum in the precious 700MHz range, bequeathed by the National Radio and TV Administration, as well as a big TV library.
For their part, the three operators, faced with a 5G network bill of as much as $400 billion and a government with ambitions for global 5G leadership, are weighing their options. (See 5G: Too Big Even for China?.)
Unicom boss Wang Xiaochu said at a results press conference last week that the company was in talks on cooperation with both China Telecom and China Mobile.
Unicom already has an agreement with Telecom to share 4G basestations and optical networks. (See China Unicom Seeks 5G Ally to Cope With Buildout.)
Wang also said he was seeking a roaming agreement with China Mobile to expand Unicom's network coverage.
However, China Mobile has been pursuing CBN as a partner in network construction and sharing, chairman Yang Jie has told financial website Caixi.
"A collaboration with CBN would give China Mobile access to one of the country's biggest providers of programming via the former's vast cable network," Caixin said.
The two sides have held talks, but nothing has been agreed.
But both Unicom and Telecom have objected to the potential alliance, so Unicom's Wang last week made his own pitch.
"I personally think that China Unicom is the best partner for CBN."
With 215 million cable TV customers, CBN has a bigger competitive conflict with China Mobile and China Telecom, the two largest broadband players.
"We hope to hold discussions and cooperation with CBN," said Wang, adding that he believed it was "willing to participate in our alliance."
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading