China Mobile ramps up 4G as data demand rises
Three Chinese cellcos approach one billion users, with 3G finally seeing major adoption, but Mobile needs better data networks
Published: 22 November, 2011
China Mobile is to add up to 20,000 TD-LTE base stations to its trial networks in 2012, possibly paving the way for commercial roll-out far earlier than government sources had indicated. This is being driven by a sharp increase in adoption of 3G data services in China, which will make 4G commercially viable at an earlier stage than some had expected, as well as increasing pressure on the largest cellco to supplement its somewhat inadequate 3G platform, TD-SCDMA.
Mobile has made no secret of its eagerness to upgrade from TD-SCDMA, which has a limited device ecosystem and some performance issues, compared to the mainstream standards used by China Unicom (HSPA) and China Telecom (CDMA2000). It ran a showcase TD-LTE network in Shanghai last year and has been building extensive commercial trial systems using test licences or overlays in its own bands. However, a full roll-out will require new spectrum allocations, which could delay the process. Earlier this year, government officials indicated that TD-LTE would not go commercial until there was a proven market, and that could be 2014.
However, that stage could be reached sooner, as 3G takes off in earnest in China after the predictable slow start. The total mobile base in the country is now 951.6m (as of the end of October), a growth of 1.3% on September, and that growth rate will see it top the one billion mark during 2012. The main growth driver is now 3G, whose uptake has convincingly overtaken that of 2G. In October, Unicom signed up 2.9m 3G subscribers, but only 421,000 2G users, while net 3G additions have accounted for more than half of Telecom's 29.8m total net adds so far this year.
The percentage of 3G users in the mobile base remains fairly low - Mobile, which has a total base of 638.9m, says that 43.2m of those, or less than 7%, are on 3G services. But more than half of those - 22.5m people - were added in the past year. The smaller carriers have added to their 3G bases more quickly, partly because of their more standard networks and smartphones. iPhone carrier Unicom's total base is 162.1m, with 33.1m, or 20%, on 3G, and Telecom has 120.3m customers, 31.2m (26%) of those on 3G.
Hence the accelerated TD-LTE program, as Mobile aims to narrow the gap with its rivals in higher value data services. The cellco will build between 10,000 and 20,000 additional TD-LTE base stations around China in 2012, according to vice chairman Xi Guohua. It has already installed 850 base stations in six cities and 50% of its 250,000 TD-SCDMA base stations can be gradually upgraded to the new standard.
He added that the device ecosystem was already making far more rapid progress than TD-SCDMA's had done in the early stages. The Taiwanese electronics community, which acquired significant TDD/OFDM experience with its enthusiastic support of WiMAX, is critical. MediaTek has completed development of TD-LTE/3G smartphone chips and Quanta Computer has created TD-LTE network interface cards and tablets.