China's 5G operators added getting on for 17 million 5G customers in August, but while that's a sizeable figure by the standards of most markets, growth in the country is slowing.

Mary Lennighan

September 21, 2023

3 Min Read
5G Sunset Cell Tower: Cellular communications tower for mobile phone and video data transmission
5G Sunset Cell Tower: Cellular communications tower for mobile phone and video data transmission

China’s 5G operators added getting on for 17 million 5G customers in August, but while that’s a sizeable figure by the standards of most markets, growth in the country is slowing.

That’s understandable, of course. The country’s three main telcos – four, if you include the limited contribution from newcomer China Broadnet – have been adding 5G customers at a rate of knots for the past couple of years, a curve that was always going to be unsustainable.

The big three together signed up a net 16.6 million new 5G package customers last month, according to new figures published this week. That compares with 26.2 million 5G net adds in August 2022. China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom are sticking to their stance of mainly providing 5G plan customers rather than sharing the number of customers actually using their 5G networks on a month-by-month basis, although we know from financial reports that actual 5G users are lower. Nonetheless, the figures give us a good sense of how the market is progressing and the comparison with last year is meaningful.

China Broadnet has not shared monthly data, but it’s pretty safe to suggest that its contribution to the 5G total remains small.

China Broadnet became the country’s fourth mobile network operator when it launched services in June last year. It was always going to be an uphill challenge to take on the established players – market leader China Mobile had a mobile customer base of 986.5 million a fortnight ago – and that has proved to be the case.

As Light Reading reported in June, China Broadnet signed up about 9 million customers in its first year of operation, a drop in the ocean in China terms. There have been complaints over its network quality and customer service, although there appears to have been some censorship of online coverage of those issues.

The telco claimed to have reached nationwide 5G coverage using 700 MHz spectrum in August, as reported by RCR Wireless, citing Chinese press reports that proved tricky to track down. China’s operators are involved in various base station-sharing arrangements; in this case China Broadnet said it is sharing 578,000 sites with China Mobile, enabling it cover all towns and cities with 5G at 700 MHz. It also has access to 3.8 million 4G and 5G sites using 2.6 GHz and 4.9 GHz frequencies.

China Global Television Network (CGTN) recently cited statistics from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) that show China’s mobile operators together had rolled out 3.055 million 5G base stations as of the end of July, or to put it another way, 26.9% of the country’s total mobile sites were 5G-enabled.

That’s more than many had expected. Omdia, for example, forecast earlier this year that China would have 2.9 million 5G base stations by the end of this year, a target it has already exceeded. The analyst firm predicts that the network-sharing initiatives will help boost 6G coverage in rural areas, and that in turn better coverage will make 5G the market’s dominant technology by 2026. By the end of 2028 it expects 5G to account for 65.1% of all mobile subscriptions, including IoT.

As it stands, according the MIIT data. 5G users in China numbered 695 million at the end of July, or 40.6% of the country’s total mobile base.

The big three claimed 1.3 billion 5G package customers at the end of August, which helps to illustrate the discrepancy between actual 5G network users and those simply signed up to a 5G tariff. Charting the growth in 5G network customers will help us to gain a truer picture of whether or not the market is really slowing down.

 

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About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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