Battle of broadband: Over 700 million 4G subscribers in China, but 5G is coming
By Nadim Diab

2017-01-07 19:29 GMT+8

4G mobile networks grew in popularity in 2016 in China, eclipsing broadband networks that provide slower Internet access. But they are set to be overshadowed by 5G as of 2020 as the country gears up for the next era in mobile connection.
Users of the fourth-generation mobile network reached 734 million people by the end of 2016, according to the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, up from around 96 million in 2014, the year China’s three mobile carriers rolled out commercial 4G plans.
The lion’s share of 4G subscribers is taken up by China Mobile, the country’s largest mobile carrier, with 510 million customers, according to data published on November 2016 – almost 30 percent of the world’s total fourth-generation user base.
China houses the world’s largest population of mobile subscribers with over 1.3 billion active users every month.
At the end of May 2016, 4G penetration in the country stood at almost 45 percent, with the subscriber base surpassing 580 million, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).
This picture shows a sign offering upgrade of SIM cards supporting 3G networks to ones supporting 4G data, in the city of Fuzhou, Fujian Province on October 1, 2016. / CFP Photo
The widespread coverage and usability of 4G has been boosted by dynamic infrastructure plans by China’s mobile operators and the prevalence and affordability of 4G smartphone models, from foreign brands such as Apple and Samsung to home-grown ones like Xiaomi and Huawei.
Telecom server providers are estimated to have deployed over 2.1 million 4G base stations across the country.
China Mobile has alone built the world’s largest 4G network,, a Chinese website covering news about the telecommunication industry, quoted the company’s vice-president Li Zhengmao as saying last November. With 1.44 million 4G base stations, it can reach 99.7 percent of the population in China, he said.
And more facilities are under construction.
China Telecom is planning 1.15 million 4G base stations in 2017, according to the company’s general manager Yang Xiaowei.
The Beijing-based phone network operator, ranking third nationwide, has been eyeing a bigger market share, promising to inject more resources to enlarge its 4G subscriber base, which stood at 117.3 million by November 2016.
The sector’s explosive growth is not expected to lose momentum as more subscribers desert their 3G network, as well as the now obsolete 2G.
2G networks focus on voice communications, and allow users to send text messages. Meanwhile, 3G networks enable connection to the mobile Internet and offer web browsing.
The shift from 3G to 4G, while not dramatic, delivers faster speeds in internet browsing and data downloading.
Over 400 million China Mobile users are still using 2G and 3G broadband technologies, allowing room for the market to keep growing as they gradually adopt faster Internet connection services.
The expansion of 4G smartphone connections, which London-based GSMA predicts will reach one billion by 2020, meshes well with China’s efforts to provide a more comprehensive mobile broadband coverage.
According to the country’s 13th Five-Year Plan, the blueprint for China’s development between 2016 and 2020, mobile Internet coverage will cover 85 percent of the total population by 2020, enabling densely-populated towns and administrative villages to connect to the World Wide Web via handsets, and public urban areas to enjoy free Wi-Fi.
Such development is bound to give impetus to China’s digital economy and buttress the expansion of its e-commerce activities, including mobile commerce and mobile payment platforms. It will also help foster innovation and entrepreneurship – the backbones of the country’s new economic model, under the “Internet Plus” strategy introduced by the Chinese government in 2015 to further integrate the Internet in society, economy and administration by upgrading the country’s IT infrastructure.
This picture shows a woman walking past a 5G broadband technology sign at the 25th Beijing International Exhibition of information and communication on September 20, 2016.  / CFP Photo
But despite 4G taking center stage in China, 5G-based mobile Internet will soon overshadow it, as China plans to introduce the broadband technology by 2020.
5G network, which was recently dubbed the biggest thing since electricity by Stephen Mollenkopf, the CEO of California-based telecom equipment company Qualcomm, provides better speed and coverage than the current 4G.
The Ministry of Science and Technology will promote the foundation of a global unified 5G standards and push forward the use and innovation of 5G broadband technology in preparation for the launching of 5G commercial operations in 2020, Wen Ku, head of the information and communication development at the ministry, was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying on Friday.