China Is Leaving the Rest of the World in Its 5G Wake

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By Jake Saunders | 4Q 2023 | IN-7131

5G Radio Access Network (RAN), core network, and end-user services deployment continue to accelerate in China, which is very much leaving other markets in its wake. Not only does it have 3.2 million 5G base stations up and running, but also a wide range of 5G-to-Business (5GtoB) applications. If 5G has the potential to confer greater real-time telemetry, analytics, and visualization, then there also comparative advantages that come with that proposition.

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Aggressive 5G Deployment


As 2023 has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that China has very much established itself as a global leader of 5G infrastructure deployments and rollouts of commercial 5G services. According to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the country has built or upgraded more than 3.2 million 5G base stations—accounting for 30% of the overall mobile base stations nationwide—which has already exceeded the initial target of deploying 2.9 million 5G base stations by the end of 2023. A fourth mobile operator, China Broadnet, has also been issued a 5G mobile cellular license to help stimulate consumer and enterprise competition.

Moving to 5G-Advanced


What has been the net effect of all this investment in 5G in China? 5G subscriber adoption has been robust. At the end of 1Q 2023, the number of 5G subscriptions in the country had increased to around 1.3 billion, which is an increase of more than 53% from approximately 850 million 5G subscribers as of March 2022. The China Telecom Research Institute reported that the average download speed for 5G is a very robust 340 Megabits per Second (Mbps).

China’s mobile operators have seen an overall increase in service revenue. China Mobile reported an 8.1% Year-over-Year (YoY) increase in telecommunication service revenue, with mobile Average Revenue per User (ARPU) up 0.4% to CNY49 (US$6.9). China Telecom also reported a 3.7% YoY increase in mobile communications service revenue with mobile ARPU up 0.4% to CNY45.2 (US$6.3), whereas China Unicom saw a 3-year consecutive growth in mobile ARPU to CNY44.3 (US$6.2).

Growth in revenue has been primed by an expansion in revenue models the telcos can offer. Revenue for China Mobile’s 5G private networks also saw an increase of 107.4% YoY growth, reaching RMB2.55 billion (US$365.5 million) by December 2022. Meanwhile, China Unicom experienced a spike in 5G industry virtual private network customers from 491 to 5,816 between June 2022 and June 2023. Across the board, the three operators have collectively reached a cumulative total of more than 49,000 5G commercial enterprise projects, with China’s MIIT reporting that the operators have built more than 6,000 5G private networks, to date.

China’s mobile cellular ecosystem is not resting on its laurels. Urged on by China’s government, the sector has been embracing 5G-Advanced, as underpinned by The 3rd Generation Partnership Project’s (3GPP) Release 18. Included in Release 18 are greater support for Artificial Intelligence (AI) integration, 10 Gigabits per Second (Gbps) for peak downlink and 1 Gbps for peak uplink experience, supporting a wider range of Internet of Things (IoT) scenarios, and integrated sensing & communication. Information gathered through sensors can enable communication to be more deterministic, which improves the accuracy of channel conditions assessment. Another example is dynamic beam alignment for vehicle communications using Millimeter Wave (mmWave). China’s mobile operators and vendors are keen to adopt 5G-Advanced due to its ability to support a 10X densification of IoT devices compared to 5G. There is also support for passive 5G IoT devices that can be queried by campus and/or indoor small cells to provide telemetry-related data. Instead of a field or warehouse worker, or even an Autonomous Guided Vehicle (AGV) with a portable Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) reader, the campus cellular network can track asset tags in real time and remotely—eliminating the need to check up and down warehouse aisles individually.

5G-Advanced deployments are materializing in China. China Mobile Hangzhou launched its Dual 10 Gigabit City project in early 2023. This project focuses on using 5G-Advanced technologies to support applications such as glasses-free Three-Dimensional (3D) experiences on different devices during the Asian Games. Such early experimental projects are not limited to only one city in China. To the northeast of Hangzhou, China Mobile Shanghai has also started its own project to build the first 5G-Advanced intelligent 10 Gigabit Everywhere City (10 GbE City). The network is built using the 2.6 Gigahertz (GHz) network initially for the main urban areas before expanding the coverage to the entirety of Shanghai.

Securing Comparative Advantage


5G deployment, integration, and usage is accelerating. The China Academy of Information and Communications Technology anticipates that US$232 billion will have been invested in 5G by 2025. An additional US$37.9 billion (RMB3.5 trillion) of investment will also take place in the upstream and downstream segments of the industrial chain. During a 2023 Science and Technology Week and Strategic Emerging Industries Co-creation and Development Conference, MIIT stated that 5G connectivity has been integrated into “60 out of 97 national economic categories, covering over 12,000 application themes.” ABI Research has not verified all the use cases reported by MIIT, but ABI Research’s ongoing research into the 5G-to-Business (5GtoB) market in Asia has validated that there are a wide range of 5GtoB trials, pilots, and commercial rollouts taking place in China.

This is put into sharp relief by several comparisons with the rest of the world. The United States and parts of Europe are rolling out 5G Standalone (SA) and have commitments to implement 5G-Advanced, but the growing gap between China and the rest of the world is becoming stark. In Southeast Asia’s markets, 5G upgrades are taking place at a slower pace (even calibrated on a per capita basis). Many markets are still rolling out 5G Non-Standalone (NSA). Not all markets are the same. Clearly, they have different cultural norms, and economic and industrial drivers, but there is a real danger that many markets will fall way behind China. 5G represents the latest in connectivity potential, which is now being embedded into a wide range of enterprise and societal applications. If 5GtoB provides “comparative advantage,” then those industries and those countries that embrace 5GtoB will secure its greater rewards.

A further ABI Insight that you may find interesting is “China Telecom Is the First Operator Worldwide to Launch a “Device-to-Device” Service on a Smartphone to Improve Coverage.”