Chinese carriers wrest 5G lead
Intensified research and development activities, industry partnerships mark the push toward 2020 commercial rollout
Editor's Note: On Friday, the ongoing Fifth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, will hold a forum on "5G Era: Opening and Cooperation for a Better Future". In the run-up to the key event, in interviews with China Daily, industry luminaries recalled how China's sustained R&D efforts have helped the nation maintain its pioneering role in evolving 5G mobile communication technology, related standards and the licensing phase.
Chinese telecom companies are seeking to maintain their lead in the global race for 5G commercialization.
They are stepping up research and development of the fifth-generation mobile communication technology, which is said to be at least 10 times faster than 4G services.
They are also deepening partnerships with various industries to roll out commercial services sooner than later, industry insiders said.
For instance, China Mobile Communications Corp, the world's largest telecom carrier with more than 910 million mobile subscribers, is planning to combine 5G with artificial intelligence and cloud technology for an ultramodern network that is slated for a 2020 rollout.
The company has played a significant role in the finalization of the first phase of global 5G standards, which kicked off the head stretch toward commercial 5G services.
Shang Bing, chairman of China Mobile, said: "We will focus on the standalone 5G network structure, push forward the cloud deployment of the superfast technology and build an intelligent network by boosting the operational efficiency with AI."
According to him, the company will establish a 5G innovation fund to promote the development and maturity of full-fledged industrial applications of 5G.
The senior executive did not elaborate on the specific investment size of the fund. But he said the Beijing-based company is vigorously conducting 5G trials in several cities and will start pre-commercial use of 5G in 2019 before the planned commercial launch in 2020.
The new technology will enable superfast downloads of "heavy" files like movies, self-driving cars and streaming of virtual reality games.
"Telecom operators must accelerate the transformation toward smart networks, lean management and platform services, so as to prepare for the 5G era," Shang said.
China is expected to have 576 million 5G users by 2025, or over 40 percent of global consumption, according to a report released by global consultancy EY earlier this month.
The report, titled China is Poised to Win the 5G Race, estimated that the nation's 5G capital expenditure is expected to hit 1.5 trillion yuan ($223 billion) between 2019 and 2025.
Proactive government support and big-ticket investments have helped shape a self-sustainable 5G environment in China, it added.
With the global unified standard set to be finalized in the next year or so, China is likely to advance its target for the commercial launch of 5G connections to 2019, to potentially become one of the first 5G-ready markets in the world, EY forecast.
Besides China Mobile, smaller telecom carriers including China Telecommunications Corp and China United Network Communications Group Co Ltd are moving fast to upgrade their networks. China Telecom said it will conduct scale trials of 5G applications in 17 cities.
The State-owned company will also set up 5G innovation centers to accelerate R&D. "Cross-industry cooperation is needed to speed up the maturity of 5G. China Telecom will step up efforts to push forward such collaboration," Yang Jie, chairman of China Telecom, said. "We aim to launch commercial 5G services in 2020."
At an expo jointly held by China Telecom and the US chip giant Qualcomm Inc in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, in September, the telecom carrier launched an action plan called Hello 5G to promote an ecosystem where companies from diverse sectors can join hands for growth.
Similarly, China Unicom said it will start 5G testing this year, precommercialize 5G in 2019 and finally achieve large-scale commercialization in 2020.
Ma Hongbing, general manager of operations and maintenance at China Unicom, said 16 cities, including Beijing, Xiongan, Shenyang and Qingdao, will see large-scale 5G testing this year.
All these efforts follow the rollout of favorable policies by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, China's regulator, which is seeking to expedite the development of 5G.
Wang Zhiqin, head of a 5G promotion group under the MIIT, said the second half of 2019 could well be the earliest that China may issue 5G licenses.
"We will be among the first batch of countries to issue 5G licenses in the world, most likely between the second half of 2019 and the first half of 2020," said Wang, who is also the vice-president of the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a government think tank affiliated to the MIIT.
In the past, China lagged other countries in issuing 4G and 3G licenses. But in 5G, the nation has already played an important role in finalizing the global standards and raced ahead in R&D.
"Frequency bands are likely to be distributed to telecom carriers before the end of this year, which will accelerate the construction of 5G networks," Wang said.
According to her, medium-frequency bands will be used for 5G networks in the country; and two of the country's three big telecom carriers, namely China Mobile and China Telecom, preferred to build standalone 5G networks from the very beginning, in contrast to the United States and South Korea where companies are building non-standalone 5G networks.
Non-standalone 5G deployment offers a way for companies to set up 5G stations by partially relying on the existing 4G network infrastructure while standalone architecture would require completely new structures.
"The cost of building a 5G base station will be at least 1.5 times that of a 4G base station, which will put pressure on telecom carriers," Wang said. "But the trend to innovate and apply 5G in a wide range of industries will motivate them to move fast."
Agreed Steve Lo, managing partner of EY's technology, media and telecommunications division for the region. "Proactive government support and investments in capital goods have helped shape a self-sustainable 5G environment in China," Lo said.
"China is determined to make 5G a top priority on its national agenda, striving to take a leadership role in the global landscape. It is also pressing for participation in the formulation of the international 5G standard to make China one of the main players."
By now, China has neared the completion of its third-phase of 5G testing, thanks to the participation of both domestic companies such as Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and foreign enterprises such as Ericsson AB.
The goal is to get pre-commercial system products ready by the end of this year.
Liu Xuan, an employee of Shenzhen-based BGI, China's top gene-sequencing provider, said the company is engaged in a project using 5G technology to enhance medical services in remote areas.
"We are experimenting how to help doctors do sonograms for patients thousands of miles away by tapping into the superfast speed and extremely fast responses of 5G," Liu said.