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China’s telecom carriers dig deep into their pockets to play a pioneering role in game-changing technology
In 2003, when Huawei Technologies Co, then known more as a manufacturer of telecom equipment like switches, and base stations, decided to set up a mobile phones department, China was still using 2G, or the second-generation wireless technology.
Back then, only a fraction of consumers could use cellular phones to surf the internet. And it took them about five seconds or longer to open a web page.
Sixteen years on, Huawei is the world’s second-largest smartphone maker. Its 5G-enabled handsets can download heavy data files – say, a 1 GB movie – in seconds. That’s just a glimpse of the commercial possibilities in the 5G era, which China kicked off in June.
From a virtual non-entity in the global mobile phones market to a world-renowned company, Huawei’s rise has been meteoric, and it coincided with the development of China’s telecommunications industry.
Huawei, however, is just one of the many Chinese telecom companies that have thrived on the global stage in recent years, helping the country to transform from a follower during the period of 2G and 3G to a pioneer in the 5G era.
Xiang Ligang, director-general of the Information Consumption Alliance, a telecom industry association, and a keen observer of the telecom sector for nearly two decades, said: “Chinese telecom companies have made big strides in their innovation capabilities, through their consistent and heavy input into research and development. They have strong willingness to pioneer cutting-edge applications.”
Four of the world’s top six smartphone makers – Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo – are Chinese. In 2018, the country produced 1.8 billion smartphones, accounting for 90 percent of global production, data from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology showed.
Their decades of efforts have helped nurture the world’s largest online population in a single nation – the 854 million strong Chinese netizens (as of June). That is more than the combined population of European countries. More importantly, more than 99 per cent of netizens in China surf the internet through smartphones.
As at the end of May, Chinese companies accounted for more than 30 percent of all patents essential to the global standards for 5G. After the country granted the commercial 5G licenses in June, local telecom carriers are working to build a sound network infrastructure to accelerate the technology’s commercialization.
Yang Jie, chairman of China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile operator, said the company plans to cover 50 cities across China with 5G signals by the end of this year.
“That will involve deploying 50,000 5G base stations across the country,” Yang said, adding that the company has already raised 7 billion yuan as the first phase of a 5G fund to promote the development of key technologies. The planned total size of the fund is 30 billion yuan.
Similarly, China Unicom said it will cover at least 40 cities with 5G signals by the end of this year and work together with all industry partners, including foreign companies, to accelerate 5G infrastructure construction.
Visitors can play with mechanical robotic arms, watch 4K high-definition live-streaming, wear virtual reality goggles to play 3-D games and learn that with 5G, doctors can complete surgeries on patients 2,500 kilometers away.
According to a forecast by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association, an industry group, China is set to become the world’s largest 5G market by 2025, with 460 million 5G users.