China Unicom eyes growth potential in 5G consumer, business sectors

China Unicom continues to see success in its 5G business services and customized use cases, with a company executive at MWC Shanghai indicating significant room for growth.

Jay Ian Birbeck

July 10, 2024

3 Min Read

China Unicom continues to see success in its 5G business services and customized use cases, with Fan Bin, director of the Wireless Network at China Unicom, stating that the company believes there is significant growth potential in both the consumer and business sectors as it embarks on its 5G-Advanced deployment.

The telecoms operator already launched China's first large-scale 5G-A network in Beijing last January and plans to expand its coverage throughout the rest of 2024. Yet, rather than simply scaling, China Unicom is taking a strategic approach to its 5G-A rollout, focusing on scenario-based deployment to ensure it is utilized where most needed. This includes high-demand areas like stadiums, airports, and train stations.

With an extensive 5G network already in place across China's high-speed rail system, China Unicom is naturally focusing on expanding its 5G-A rollout along popular routes. This expansion includes infrastructure upgrades, such as adding a new frequency band and installing advanced antennas.

"This year, we'll introduce the 3.5 GHz band to the existing 2.1 GHz network on the lines between Beijing and Guangzhou, as well as between Beijing and Shanghai," Fan explained.

China Unicom has traditionally used the 2.1 GHz band as the primary frequency for its high-speed rail network. By adding the 3.5 GHz band, the operator will be able to vastly improve both coverage and capacity. To do this, it is installing the latest massive MIMO technology from Huawei, which uses intelligent tracking and beam focusing to improve network coverage and performance on the 3.5 GHz frequency band.

"For passengers, this means an enhanced experience, including seamless video conferencing, low-latency gaming, and high-definition live video streaming," Fan said.

To monetize this offering, the company is considering the introduction of specialized packages for consumers. "We're researching the possibility of rolling out an acceleration or uplink package," Fan explained. "What we are thinking about is perhaps when users are livestreaming or having video conferences on board, they can enjoy a certain uplink assurance."

Elsewhere, the company is expanding its portfolio of custom 5G services for businesses, a sector that has historically been difficult for telecom operators to capitalize on despite its promising potential.

"While 5G networks have been developing rapidly, 5G-to-business solutions have not grown as quickly as the industry expected," stated Fan. "However, we're now seeing new demands, applications, and services emerging. We believe telecom operators should be embracing these opportunities in the 5G-to-B domain."

China Unicom has emerged as a major player in 5G-to-B services, with solid growth in its enterprise segment in recent years. The company's industrial internet business surged 29% in 2023, outperforming other units, while its computing and digital services sales rose 13%.

The company attributes its robust financial results to its focus on finding real-world applications for cutting-edge 5G technologies, such as reduced capability (RedCap) modules and passive IoT. In 2023, China Unicom launched the world's first commercial RedCap module, the Yanfei NX307, quickly followed by three additional models. Fan said the operator plans to expand RedCap support across its network this year, enabling widespread deployment of lightweight 5G applications.

China Unicom has also been piloting 5G-powered production lines, tapping into the growing demand for advanced connection solutions across various industries, including the country's fast-growing electric vehicle sector.

"We have been working with Great Wall Motors, a major Chinese automaker, to pilot a 5G-powered manufacturing line," Fan explained. "This manufacturing line uses 5G to enable cloud-based PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) use cases, meeting the latency and reliability requirements of the manufacturing sector."

According to Fan, these 5G-powered production lines can achieve a wireless delay of just 4 milliseconds and near-perfect reliability. The company is now working to scale this solution across various industries.

Fan mentioned that China Unicom is also creating more tailored packages for specific industries and scenarios, such as offshore locations and the low-altitude economy.

Overall, the second half of 2024 looks to be an eventful period for China Unicom as it scales its 5G business services and begins rolling out its 5G-A network. If growth remains robust, then its success should provide a model for operators worldwide.

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