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5G networks

China Mobile and Huawei switch on first piece of 5G network

China set to become leading market for mobile technology, industry watchers say

Huawei touted its 5G business at this week's MWC Shanghai mobile conference. (Photo by CK Tan)

SHANGHAI -- A unit of China Mobile, the country's largest telecommunications operator, and Huawei Technologies said this week that a key piece of Chinese 5G network infrastructure has been put into use for the first time.

Known as a 5G transport network, the Huawei-built infrastructure will let China Mobile Zhejiang roll out the next generation communication services promising faster data downloads, both companies said on the sidelines of the MWC Shanghai technology conference.

This comes as China prepares for the commercial rollout of 5G services Oct. 1, state media China Daily reported last month, quoting an industry player.

China Mobile Zhejiang and Huawei have collaborated on a 5G transport network since 2016 and built China's largest pilot project in 2018.

China Mobile is one of the four carriers in the country that clinched a 5G operating license recently. It later awarded network equipment contracts to operators including domestic companies Huawei and ZTE as well as Finland's Nokia and Ericsson of Sweden.

The carrier said it will offer 5G commercial services in over 50 cities this year through 50,000 base stations to be constructed across China.

Such expensive stand-alone architecture could support running the current 4G and 5G services at the same time, removing the complexity of mobile network integration, said GSMA Intelligence, a U.K.-based mobile communications researcher. Operators also are considering upgrading existing 4G infrastructure.

Operators in Asia will spend $370 billion in 5G network rollouts through 2025, GSMA projected in a recent report. China will reach 460 million 5G connections during that period, the researcher said, outstripping the U.S. and Europe.

Chinese users probably will pay 10% to 15% more compared with the current 4G subscription but for much greater bandwidth, said GSMA analyst Jan Stryjak. The forecast is based on South Korea, which launched 5G services earlier this year.

U.S. semiconductor giant Qualcomm said the impending 5G rollout will put China in the "front line of mobile technology even though the country was behind others in launching 3G and 4G technologies."

"We are ready to work with our partners in 5G," Frank Meng, chairman of Qualcomm China, told MWC conference attendees, counting Chinese phone makers Lenovo, Vivo, Xiaomi and ZTE among its customers.

The transition from 4G to 5G also will fuel demand for optical fiber deployment, a key infrastructure in mobile technology connections, said Yangtze Optical Fibre, or YOFC, the world's largest fiber company.

Dan Zhuang, the group's president, told the MWC conference that global demand for fiber will rise to 650 million km over the next five years, from the current 519 million km.

"Only stand-alone infrastructure can support all 5G applications, and this will lead to greater demand for fiber," he said.

Meanwhile, the race to roll out 5G could worsen the "geopolitical storm" that followed the U.S. sanctions blocking access to American technology for Chinese companies such as Huawei, said Dev Lewis, an analyst with Digital Asia Hub, a Hong Kong-based non-for-profit think tank.

Regional economies with poor cutting-edge technology will need to rely on countries like China or the U.S. for 5G rollout, raising the risk of data breaches, Lewis said.

To avert such risk, these countries could ban together -- such as through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- to create collective bargaining power and set a higher standard for 5G, he said.

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