China doubles down on 5G roll-out in 2021 despite complaints about spotty coverage, hard-selling

Jane Zhang
·3-min read

China plans to build at least 600,000 more 5G base stations in 2021, speeding up the roll-out of the next-generation network in major cities despite customer complaints about spotty coverage and aggressive sales tactics by the country’s telecommunications operators.

The target was announced by Xiao Yaqing, the head of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), at a conference on Monday, according to state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Xiao said the country plans to promote the construction and application of 5G networks in the coming year and accelerate coverage in major cities. It also aims to deploy more data centres and computing facilities, carry out pilot tests for industrial 5G private networks and release plans for 5G frequency bands, according to the Xinhua report.

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China had 160 million devices connected to 5G networks and over 690,000 5G base stations were running across the country by mid-October, according to MIIT.

With peak data rates up to 100 times faster than what current 4G networks provide, 5G has been held out as “the connective tissue” for the Internet of Things, autonomous cars, smart cities and other new mobile applications, establishing the backbone for the industrial internet. China has sought to be a leader in the new network technology, seeing it as a key pillar in its efforts to battle the US for economic leadership, along with other emerging technologies like artificial intelligence.

Why China’s 5G push has yet to excite its millions of mobile consumers

However, Chinese consumers have complained of spotty coverage and hard-selling of 5G subscription plans by telcos.

“I heard from my carrier that 5G would provide reliable and fast data speeds, and that is important to me,” Beijing-based banker and 5G user Kelvin Li told the Post earlier this year. “I upgraded my data plan early this year. But so far I do not feel any improvement on data service.”

Some local operators have also forced their users to upgrade by cancelling existing 4G packages, leading to complaints and the topic “Getting 5G’d” to trend on Chinese microblogging site Weibo, with many users sharing their experiences of being forced to upgrade.

A September survey by Guangzhou-based iiMedia Research showed that three in four non-5G users did not feel a need to buy a 5G phone, and over 62 per cent of 4G users surveyed said they did not have any demand for 5G.

The country’s major telecommunications carriers China Mobile and China Telecom reported 114 million and 65 million 5G subscribers respectively as of the end of September, adding up to at least 179 million subscribers. China Unicom has not disclosed its number of 5G subscribers.

The total number of 5G subscribers reported is still only a fraction of China’s huge base of 1.2 billion 4G users. At the same time, it is way ahead of 5G smartphone shipments in China – estimated at 144 million from January to November, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology – implying that many so-called 5G subscribers are actually using 5G plans on their 4G smartphones.

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