Suddenly China's newest and smallest operator, China Broadcast Network (CBN), seems to have two suitors.
Last month, the under-funded national cable TV player was reported to be planning a joint network buildout with utility giant State Grid. (See China's CBN Starts 5G Trials Amid Doubts.)
The state-owned energy firm would bring financial resources as well as its 2.9 million tower sites. CBN would provide its precious 700MHz spectrum.
Now the industry ministry and telecom regulator, MIIT, has issued CBN with additional spectrum in the 4.9GHz band.
This isn't any old slice of spectrum real estate. These are the same frequencies held by China Mobile, mobile market leader and singleton.
Rivals China Telecom and China Unicom are busily combining their 5G infrastructure in an exercise that will likely save billions of dollars, helped along by contiguous spectrum holdings.
So the MIIT announcement has set off some intense speculation. Given the opaque nature of China's bureaucracy, it's not clear exactly what the agenda is. But a couple of things are certain.
One is that since the successful creation of China Tower, the MIIT is increasingly keen on infrastructure sharing. It knows multiple individual 5G rollouts are not viable and is not shy about chivvying its operators into alliances; hence the Telecom-Unicom arrangement. (See China 5G Plans Put China Tower in the Spotlight.)
The other is that bureaucratic politics are almost certainly a factor. The three telcos belong to the MIIT. CBN belongs to its arch rival, the National Radio and Television Agency (NRTA).
The two have never got along, having squabbled for years about opening their respective sectors to each other.
China Mobile has held talks with CBN over the past six months without result. Now it appears the telecom camp has been stung into action by the prospect of State Grid crashing its turf.
It's one thing to face a minnow like CBN offering a bare bones 5G service. But with the backing of an 800lb gorilla like State Grid, it could do some serious damage.
For its part, CBN has either played its cards astutely or simply got lucky.
Clearly, State Grid is an attractive partner -- its 2018 revenue of 2.56 trillion Chinese yuan ($366.9 billion) was roughly three times that of China Mobile.
Additionally, it doesn't bring the baggage of cellcos, with its focus on growing its own digital services rather than running public mobile.
No doubt the telcos don't view it that way. They see a powerful rival that could turn its assets into a future competitor network.
Little CBN, even if it is from the loathed broadcast ministry, suddenly appears to be an agreeable partner.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading