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5G networks

5G phones debut in China to a shrug amid lack of networks

Shift from 4G likely won't gain momentum until 2023

Vivo rolled out its first 5G models earlier this month, but shoppers were out of luck in Guangzhou, where the high-speed network is not yet available. (Photo by Takashi Kawakami)

GUANGZHOU -- Smartphone makers in China have released new 5G handsets over the past month to a muted reaction because the networks that run the next-generation wireless technology are still unavailable in most parts of the country.

With overall demand for smartphones in China slowing, it will likely take several years before 5G-compatible phones become widely used, analysts say.

A Vivo store in Guangzhou, one of the country's biggest cities, was quiet last week as the company rolled out its first 5G models. A possible explanation for the lack of crowds was shoppers being unable to test out 5G communication in downtown Guangzhou, where the store is located.

In another part of the city about a month earlier, a Huawei Technologies outlet drew enthusiastic crowds when the company's 5G-compatible phone went on sale Aug. 16. But the excitement was short lived, as the 5G technology was unavailable here as well.

A Huawei shop in Guangzhou: consumer enthusiasm for 5G phones has been restrained in light of the limited network availability. (Photo by Takashi Kawakami)

China Mobile and other carriers are scrambling to build the infrastructure, and 5G communication is expected to be up and running in many major cities by the end of the year. 5G has been advertised as reaching speeds at least 20 times faster than 4G, but unable to put that to the test, customers are in no hurry to upgrade their handsets.

"Many consumers are happy with 4G," said an analyst at Chinese researcher Askci Consulting. "A 5G craze won't be coming soon."

This year, 5G handsets are expected to account for just 1% of China's smartphone market. They will not be more popular than 4G phones until 2023, the analyst said.

The broader market is slowing. Chinese smartphone shipments recorded the first year-on-year decline in 2017, and the number slipped further to 397.7 million units in 2018, missing the 400 million mark for the first time in five years. The April-June quarter of this year saw a 6.1% decrease.

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