About a year after China launched its first public 5G networks, it held a major telecommunications event in the southern city of Guangzhou on Nov. 26-27. The second annual World 5G Convention (W5GC) attracted top executives from the country’s three state-owned carriers (China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom) and high-level officials from telecom regulators to the event. 

Representatives of several overseas carriers including Spain’s Telefonica, Singapore’s Singtel, Deutsche Telekom, and America’s AT&T also attended by video link. But W5GC was more China than world: the agenda centered on China’s deployment and applications of next-generation 5G networks, while almost all foreign speakers were allocated to a “global forum.”

Not all information from the world-level conference was new, but the message delivered by officials is important: China is counting for future economic growth on a series of cutting-edge technologies enabled by ultra-fast 5G networks, which includes electric vehicles, artificial intelligence, and big data. In the short term, 5G is seen as a remedy for the country’s virus-hit economy.

Bottom line: 

  • 5G cellular service is already widely available in China—if you live in a city, you should be able to use it. But networks are far from complete, and China expects to spend hundreds of billions on base stations in the coming year.
  • But 5G still isn’t essential. We haven’t seen a “killer app.” Authorities still talk about it as a future technology rather than something paying off now.
  • Compared to last year’s W5GC (held in Beijing), this year focused more on the domestic market, whereas last year China tried to export its approach to 5G to the world.

Widely available:

  • Liu Liehong, deputy minister of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), said China has built more than 700,000 base stations with more than 180 million 5G subscribers as of October.
  • Dong Xin, chief executive officer of China Mobile, said the world’s largest telecom carrier by subscribers had built 385,000 base stations with more than 90 million 5G end users. He said the company had provided 5G service in all Chinese prefecture-level cities.
  • Wang Xiaochu, president of China Unicom, said the company is now providing standalone 5G service in more than 300 cities, meaning that its 5G network does not rely on older 4G infrastructure.

Growth forecast:

  • Feng Yi, director at China Unicom’s 5G Innovation Center, said China’s 5G users could grow by 20% in the next year.
  • John Hoffman, CEO of GSMA, a telecoms industry body, predicted that around 20% of global telecom users will choose 5G services by 2025, with the penetration rate reaching 50% in countries like the US, Japan, and South Korea. “China will be the world’s biggest 5G market in terms of subscribers, though its penetration rate will only be 30% by 2025.”

Message from Europe: After a year in which Huawei has lost ground in Europe, Nicolas Chapuis, European ambassador to China, argued that the bloc assesses vendors neutrally: 

“In Europe, operators and suppliers are also ready to proceed, frequencies have been allocated, but governments and security agencies want to first make sure that the impact of this new technology on industry and services is well managed and regulated. Suppliers, be they European as well as non European, have been required to prove their compliance with a set of rules, known as the EU 5G tool box. Chinese companies have welcomed this framework, which is based on a solid, thorough, transparent and objective assessment of risks and applies to all players.”

Nicolas Chapuis, European ambassador to China

READ MORE: INSIGHTS | More European countries are turning their backs on Huawei

5G spending push to continue: In June 2019, China issued 5G licenses to its three major carriers and a broadcasting company, with commercial use of the service starting last November. Though China launched the service later than countries like the US and South Korea, the country is now—according to officials speaking at this week’s event—is “taking a lead” globally in the deployment of 5G networks.

  • The buildout of the country’s 5G networks is largely backed by the state. China in April kicked off a “new infrastructure” initiative, promising to spend RMB 1 trillion (around $152 billion) on seven cutting-edge technologies including 5G, artificial intelligence, and electric vehicles in 2020 alone. China Sinolink Securities, a broker, expects total investment by local governments and telecom companies into base stations to reach RMB 300 billion this year.
  • The Chinese government is calling for a quick rollout of the next-generation wireless network, which prompted China Telecom and China Unicom, the smaller rivals of China Mobile, to jointly build a next-generation network. On Thursday, Wang of China Unicom said the company saved RMB 60 billion “for the state” from the partnership with China Telecom.
  • Most 5G base station buildout contracts have gone to China Tower, a state-owned telecommunications tower infrastructure service provider. Tong Jilu, chairman of China Tower, said Thursday that the company had constructed more than 700,000 5G base stations for local carriers. He said 97% of those stations were built on existing 4G stations. 

5G as stimulus: Speakers tied the protocol to hopes for growth from the “digital economy.” China’s economy could have taken a much deeper hit this year without the “digital economy,” according to a former government official.

  • “2020 is a year of troubles. Under this circumstance, people all looked at the digital world for economic growth,” said Li Ming, executive director of the China Institute of Digital Economy Research. “5G will be a growth engine of the digital economy,” he said.
  • Xu Xianchun, director at the Tsinghua University’s China Data Center, said China’s digital economy grew 13.2% year on year in the first quarter while the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) was down 6.8% in the same period because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
  • Xu, who is also the former deputy director of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, said the country’s GDP could be down more than 8% in the first quarter if the digital economy shrank as well, highlighting the importance of the sector in China’s economy.

A subdued Huawei? You can’t talk about 5G in China without talking about Huawei. But Huawei was relatively inconspicuous at this year’s W5GC. Last year, one Huawei executive appealed (in Chinese) called for the digital “Berlin Wall” to come down, and the company’s then rotating chairman vowed to build “the world’s best 5G.” This year, attendees from the company focused on products and devices.

Internal circulation: Things have changed a lot between the two W5GCs. Last year’s conference featured a session (in Chinese) that aimed at promoting China’s participation in global 5G standards; this year’s “world” conference overwhelmingly focused on developments in China. Of course, closed borders and a pandemic make international events much harder, but the changes also reflect the change in economic strategy known as “dual circulation,” which calls for the country to rely less on international markets. If China was still hoping to shape the 5G conversation around the world when it launched the conference last year, this November’s event suggests a more modest focus on the home market.

UPDATE: The quote from EU Ambassador Nicolas Chapuis has been updated based on a text provided by the EU Delegation to China. An earlier version of this article relied on a translation printed in Chinese media reports.

Wei Sheng

Wei Sheng is a Beijing-based reporter covering hardware, smartphone, and telecommunications, along with regulations and policies related to the China tech scene. He writes a monthly newsletter tracking...