Setting standards

China Mobile plans 4G domination

Setting standards

Gee up: TD-LTE is coming

China has long been the world’s biggest mobile market. Now it has claimed a new title: the first country in the world to reach one billion mobile phone subscribers.

That’s some incredible growth. Recall that China had exceeded 500 million mobile phone users in 2007, which means its mobile market has doubled in the last five years alone (India, too, is closing in, with 900 million mobile users).

But despite having over a billion mobile subscribers, the use of third-generation services remains low in China. Government figures show that 3G penetration is less than 14% of total subscribers. China Telecom leads the way with about 30% of its users on its 3G network, followed by China Unicom with 21%. But dragging down the ratio is China Mobile, which saw only 8.2% of its total user base using its 3G services.

The main problem for the slow adoption is the homegrown 3G standard, TD-SCDMA (see WiC3). China’s government, which owns all three of the nation’s wireless carriers, gave the two smaller carriers licenses to operate tried and tested foreign-developed protocols that are used in other markets. But it saddled China Mobile with developing TD-SCDMA, the homegrown 3G wireless technology. Beijing reckoned the company’s sheer size – it has 655 million subscriber accounts – would help promote the technology.

That explains why China Mobile has missed out on Apple’s popular iPhone. The US group has been in talks with China Mobile about a possible iPhone carrier deal for years. But that would require tweaking the device to work with the TD-SCDMA standard, something Apple was reluctant to do. Instead, Apple signed with China Unicom, and more recently China Telecom, to distribute the iPhone.

Learning its lesson, the world’s biggest carrier is looking to improve its situation as it prepares to roll out a 4G network which allows even faster data services. China Mobile recently gave an update on the deployment of the homegrown Chinese standard, TD-LTE (see WiC60).

At this year’s Mobile World Congress, the industry’s must-attend convention, Li Yue, president of China Mobile, told reporters that Beijing, Tianjin and Qingdao will be included in a large-scale trial of TD-LTE in China starting this year. The addition brings the total number of cities that will take part in the test to nine.

“If the expanded large-scale test is successful this year, China Mobile will increase the number of TD-LTE base stations in China to more than 200,000 in 2013,” says Li.

Analysts say this time around China Mobile has a shot at reversing the fate it suffered with 3G. That’s largely because it has worked to build international support for the 4G technology. For a start, the mobile carrier announced that Apple has promised that future iPhones will be able to run on TD-LTE. Qualcomm, one of the world’s biggest chipmakers for both cellphones and telecoms equipment, too, has agreed to develop chips based on the standard, providing more momentum for its development.

“One of the key lessons of TD-SCDMA is that, despite the power of China Mobile, they cannot create a global ecosystem on their own,” says Tucker Grinnan, head of Asia telecom research for HSBC. “TD-LTE provides the potential for a global-scale technology with a viable global ecosystem.”

Already, China Mobile has been aggressively promoting the use of TD-LTE technology both at home and abroad. But it’s not going to be entirely straightforward. In the US, mobile carriers Verizon Wireless and AT&T have both launched 4G networks using the European rival 4G technology FDD-LTE.

One reason is that development of supporting equipment for TD-LTE has lagged behind that for FDD-LTE by more than six months. But TD-LTE has advantages: it makes more efficient use of wireless spectrum, a scarce resource, says the Wall Street Journal.

That could sway operators who know smartphones are using ever more data, pressuring their network capacities. India’s Bharti Airtel, and Softbank in Japan have said they will adopt the protocol. US wireless-service provider Clearwire, too, said it would run tests on TD-LTE.

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