China has pulled the trigger early on commercial 5G, issuing four licenses Thursday in the latest escalation of global wireless rivalry.
In a ceremony in Beijing this week, the industry ministry, the MIIT, handed out licenses to the three incumbent operators -- China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom -- as well as a newcomer, the national cable TV company China Broadcasting Network Corp.
That followed state media reporting earlier in the week that the issue of licenses was imminent.
Under the previous timetable, pre-commercial pilot services were planned for later this year, with commercial deployment slated for 2020.
Analysts believe the accelerated timetable is designed to support Huawei and help China move ahead of the US on 5G rollout and service development.
A Huawei spokesperson said the company was "fully confident" of meeting China domestic demand for 5G equipment.
However, securities firm Jefferies Equity said in a research note that the issue of licenses did not erase doubts about the impact of the supply bans on Huawei, Reuters reported.
If they remain or are extended to other companies, "it will be very difficult for China to build 5G in scale," Jefferies said. "The action by China to accelerate 5G licensing does not remove or alleviate this risk."
The three big telcos have already been running 5G field trials in 13 cities and have allocated more than $4 billion to 5G rollout in 2019.
China Mobile says it will invest approximately 17 billion yuan ($2.5 billion), and it expects to have as many as 50,000 basestations deployed by year-end.
China Telecom plans to invest RMB9 billion ($1.3 billion), while China Unicom aims to spend up to RMB8 billion ($1.2 billion).
According to a forecast from China Securities, Chinese operators will invest a total of RMB1.23 trillion ($178 billion) in 5G and deploy twice as many basestations as they did when building 4G networks.
The award of a license to the under-funded state-owned cable TV operator suggests the government intends to make further tweaks to the industry structure to make it more competitive.
China Broadcasting, formed five years ago out of the provincial cable TV operators, has valuable 700MHz spectrum and more than 250 million cable TV customers but no mobile network assets and just RMB4.5 billion ($650 million) in paid-in capital.
In 2017, it formed a RMB10 billion ($1.4 billion) mobile venture with the Citic financial group, and most likely government officials will wrangle further strategic partners for it as they did for China Unicom two years ago.
Industry analysts say it will need access to its rivals' 4G and 5G networks to allow it to become a viable competitor.
Elsewhere in Asian 5G, South Korea leads the way, following the start of service in April, Japan has just allocated spectrum ahead of an anticipated full commercial launch next year to coincide with the summer Olympics, and Singapore has begun the selection process, with the aim of rolling out two networks next year.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading