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Race update: For every ten US 5G customers, there's one Chinese 5G basestation

Here at the tail end of 2020 it's worth checking in on the so-called "race to 5G" between the US and China. And, as it stands right now, the race doesn't seem to be very close: For every ten 5G customers in the US market, there is roughly one 5G basestation in China.

Meaning, China is well on its way to dramatically outpacing the US in the construction of 5G networks and the sale of 5G services.

To be clear, this does not come as a surprise. Although they're roughly the same size geographically, China counts 1.4 billion people while the US only counts around 330 million. China's total addressable 5G market is more than four times bigger than the US market. It will naturally need more basestations.

But the fact that China has pulled ahead of the US in the deployment of 5G is noteworthy considering a wide range of US industry executives, policymakers and lobbyists have used the notion of a "race" in 5G between the two countries as a lever to encourage the easing of regulations around US wireless network operators.

The race to 5G is important, according to some in the industry, because the country tat wins the race will be the one to reap the benefits of 5G entrepreneurs and innovators. The next Uber, for example, might be based in China instead of the US if that country develops a leadership role in 5G the way the US did in 4G.

Of course, skeptics can easily argue that the "race to 5G" has been mainly fabricated by US industry lobbyists keen to lean on fears over trade relations and national security as a way to extract concessions from US policymakers in areas like small cell deployments, spectrum auctions and cell tower upgrades.

Regardless, the fact that the "race" has been such a hot topic over the past few years necessitates an occasional check-in on the competitors' progress. The results are eye-opening.

At the end of October, China's top mobile network operators collectively counted more than 150 million 5G users, or close to half of the entire US population. And according to China's telecom regulator, operators in that country have constructed more than 600,000 5G basestations so far – ahead of expectations.

US figures are harder to come by. US mobile operators like Verizon and AT&T don't disclose 5G subscriber numbers, and the US telecom regulatory agency, the FCC, doesn't provide figures on basestations other than to tout its accomplishments.

However, according to M Science, there have been roughly 6 million 5G-capable phones – ranging from the Samsung Galaxy S20 to the Motorola Edge+ – sold in the US so far this year. M Science, a division of Wall Street banking giant Jefferies, derives its figures from its point-of-sale database that comprises roughly 10,000 independently owned wireless retail stores.


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It's worth noting that all of these figures are moving targets. For example, the number of 5G phones sold in the US market ought to pop in the coming weeks as Apple's new 5G-capable iPhones go on sale.

It's also worth noting that there are very few concrete conclusions to take away from the fact that around 2% of the US population owns a 5G-capable phone. For example, Verizon's super-fast, millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G network only covers an estimated 1.8 million people. And the carrier itself has acknowledged that its "nationwide" 5G network, working on its lowband spectrum holdings, isn't any faster than its 4G network. Plus, Verizon isn't charging extra for 5G services anyway.

Meaning, 5G means more to Verizon's marketing department than it does to the company's networking executives and customers.

The truth is that it will take time for both Chinese and US operators to flood their respective customer bases with 5G phones and cell sites. And beyond those mechanics, it will also take time for 5G technology to mature, just as 4G did. Most of today's 5G networks around the world don't yet provide the kinds of blazing-fast speeds, low latency connections and ubiquitous coverage necessary for the next Uber to emerge. If the evolution of 4G is any indication – today's 4G networks are dramatically faster than they were a decade ago – that will all change over time.

Thus, the "race to 5G" will continue to stand as more of a rhetorical tool than an actual event. And the eventual victor in a 5G race between the US and China likely will win that prize due to reasons far removed from 5G-capable handset counts or basestation statistics.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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