Published: 15:44, June 10, 2020 | Updated: 00:50, June 6, 2023
China's 5G network construction gathers speed
By Ma Si

Technicians work on a 5G base station in China's Chongqing municipality on April 15, 2020. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

China is forecast to have more than 150 million 5G mobile subscribers by the end of this year as the nation's efforts to expedite construction of new infrastructure are expected to help fuel economic growth, experts and company executives said.

Liu Duo, a deputy to the 13th National People's Congress, said despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese telecom carriers are working hard to accelerate the rollout of 5G.

"5G networks include two parts, namely core networks and base stations. Chinese telecom carriers are aiming to upgrade their 5G core networks into stand-alone architecture by the end of this year," said Liu, who is also head of the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a government think tank.

By then, stand-alone 5G networks, which function better than non-stand-alone networks, will lay down a sound foundation for wider application of 5G in a variety of industries, Liu said. Non-standalone networks differ from standalone as the former one still rely on existing 4G infrastructure to realize some functions.

5G networks include two parts, namely core networks and base stations. Chinese telecom carriers are aiming to upgrade their 5G core networks into stand-alone architecture by the end of this year

Liu Duo, Deputy to the 13th National People's Congress

ALSO READ: 5G technology to offer players new experiences

Currently, more than 10,000 new 5G base stations are being built in China every week. The rapid rollout schedule came after over 200,000 5G base stations had already become operational in the nation as of mid-May, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

In April alone, more than 7 million mobile users subscribed to telecom carriers' 5G data package plans. The increase brought the total number of China's 5G mobile subscribers to more than 36 million by the end of April, said Miao Wei, minister of industry and information technology.

Liu said China's telecom carriers will invest 180 billion yuan (US$25.2 billion) into the construction of 5G networks this year, which will motivate companies in the telecom industry chain to invest more than 520 billion yuan into the superfast wireless technology.

"About 20 percent of 5G applications will be consumer-oriented, and 80 percent of its commercial potential lies in its use in traditional sectors. As a result, the combination of 5G and the industrial internet will be of greater importance to the nation's push for large-scale industrial upgrade," Liu said.

Currently, the industrial internet is being increasingly used in manufacturing, healthcare, energy, smart ports and other sectors. "Manufacturing has seen the most application scenarios, including using the technology to automatically collect industrial information and conduct remote control operations, video surveillance and product quality testing," Liu said.

Yang Jie, chairman of China Mobile, said 5G will play a significant role in driving economic growth and social development, and he called for more favorable policies to help telecom carriers lower the cost of building 5G stations.

"The cost of each 5G base station is two to three times that of one 4G base station. Also, more 5G stations are needed to cover the same area as 4G does," Yang said.

Yang added that the operational costs of 5G are also higher than 4G. As a result, the senior executive called for more favorable policies to lower electricity bills and other utilities for 5G construction.

His comments came as China has cemented its position as a global leader in 5G wireless technology, with the nation expected to account for 70 percent of global 5G connections in 2020, according to an international association of mobile operators.

Despite the short-term headwinds from the novel coronavirus outbreak, China's telecom operators, industrial enterprises and consumers remain enthusiastic about the superfast technology, said the Global System for Mobile Communications Association in its latest report.

Driven by significant investment and growing enthusiasm among consumers and enterprises, 5G will account for almost half of China's mobile connections by 2025, representing a similar adoption rate as other leading 5G markets such as Japan, South Korea and the United States, the report predicted.

Si Han, head of GSMA China, said, "Unlocking the benefits of these next-generation networks and having flexible policies are strategically important to support China's ongoing transformation into a full-fledged digital economy."

The nation's big three mobile carriers, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, kicked off the commercialization of 5G last year, and they are diversifying their offerings for both consumers and corporate customers.

In 2020, the three carriers said they will build a total of 550,000 5G base stations nationwide, which will achieve continuous outdoor connections in prefectural-level cities across China, and cover key areas in counties and townships.

In April, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom jointly introduced a new 5G-enabled messaging service that could prove to be a game changer in social networking and pose challenges to social networking giant Tencent Holdings Ltd's messaging services.

The three published a white paper on 5G messaging services, which specifies the technical details necessary for smartphone makers to support the new service.

Falling under the technical name of rich communication services, or RCS, 5G messaging services are designed to replace short messages with a system that is richer, provides phone book polling and can transmit in-call multimedia.

With the new messaging service, consumers don't have to download a variety of mobile apps. They can directly buy train tickets and book flights by sending messages.

Ma Jihua, an independent telecom analyst, said the new 5G-powered messaging service, if properly promoted, will usher in a new era of social networking and cut into Tencent's messaging business.

China also continued to be the main market driver for 5G smartphones globally, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, according to market research company Strategy Analytics.

Global shipments of 5G phones during the first quarter alone topped all 5G phone shipments in 2019, thanks in large part to strong demand from Chinese consumers, Strategy Analytics said in its latest report.

Chinese smartphone vendors accounted for 61 percent of 5G smartphone shipments by the top five global players during the first quarter, with the majority of the volume going to the Chinese market, the report added.

Aside from pushing consumer applications, China's telecom companies are also popularizing industrial use of 5G. China Mobile's Zhejiang branch established a 5G industry alliance to promote the development of the industrial internet and widen 5G applications.

The alliance currently has 193 leading companies from traditional industries and promising technology startups. For example, it has partnered with hospitals to support 5G-enabled remote healthcare services, and it also built a smart port in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, to boost efficiency, the company said.

So far, more than 70 industrial internet platforms with regional or sector-wide influence have emerged in China, said the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

READ MORE: 5G tech makes mining safer, more efficient

Liu from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, said a technology or industry must prove it can help companies boost quality and efficiency as well as reduce costs if it wants to be used on a large scale. The industrial internet has such potential.

"But more resources are needed to safeguard cybersecurity for the industrial internet," Liu added.

She added that compared with consumer internet applications such as e-commerce, the industrial internet is far more complex and more vulnerable to sophisticated cyberattacks.

Once the industrial internet is attacked by "bad guys", it not only compromises information, but also harms the whole enterprise, Liu said.