HONG KONG -- This year is supposed to mark the dawn of the 5G era, but China's telecommunications companies are showing a surprising amount of caution when it comes to investing in the next-generation technology.
Industry, investors and experts expect 5G will unlock a range of new technologies and applications, from lightning-fast mobile internet to self-driving cars and smart cities. Given its vast potential, 5G has also become a major point of contention in the U.S.-China friction, as each side attempts to push its own version of the technology in pursuit of global hegemony.
Yet China's three telecom carriers -- all state-owned and responsible for building domestic infrastructure -- have earmarked only 10% or so of their 2019 capital expenditure for 5G, according to estimates and official announcements, amid concerns over their ability to recoup the costs of investment in the new technology as user revenues continue to fall.
This cautious attitude was underscored when China Mobile, the largest of the three, chose not to disclose its budget for 5G at its annual earnings briefing on Thursday. Only a few hints were dropped by management, including Chairman Yang Jie, who was appointed to the position earlier this month after leaving rival China Telecom.
Yang said: "Capital expenditure, including 5G, will be lower than last year's total amount."
Analyzing Yang's comments, as well as the company's figures, which indicate capital expenditure for 2018 and the estimate for 2019 without 5G, overall investment in 2019 will not exceed 167.1 billion yuan ($25 billion), while 5G spending will be 17.2 billion yuan at the most.
That is a conservative figure considering the company is China's largest telecom operator. According to Yang, this year will be "the year to test" 5G, and peak investment is expected to "come next year and the year after that."
China Mobile's two smaller peers are on a similar track. China Telecom is spending 9 billion yuan on 5G investments, while China Unicom will spend between 6 billion and 8 billion yuan. The figures are slightly more than 10% of their respective capital expenditure for the year.
"There are quite a few issues that we need to consider on 5G," Ke Ruiwen, president and acting chairman of China Telecom, told reporters on Tuesday.
The company plans to launch pilot projects in 17 cities, and the timing of more sizable 5G investments will "depend on the results of the experiments of the pilot projects, competition, licensing process, level of industrial use of the internet," Ke said.
The issue seems to be more imminent for China Unicom, as it is the smallest of the three telecom companies. Chairman and CEO Wang Xiaochu said his company will "tighten the purse strings on 5G as it requires huge amount of investment."
During China Unicom's earnings briefing on March 13, he stressed that "the situation is completely different from 4G, 3G and 2G." He even called for "extensive alliance within and outside the sector in order to share resources and costs" to cope with the new round of this investment.
Telecom operators in China, as elsewhere, are facing multiple headwinds, including the low margins that come with being a network operator. Companies taking advantage of those networks, meanwhile, such as e-commerce platforms and content providers, enjoy significantly higher margins without the burden of construction and maintenance costs.
"Many telcos are running to stand still," said Janice Chong, director of Asia-Pacific corporate ratings at Fitch Ratings. "They are compelled to invest in data networks but EBITDA growth is only modest," she said, referring to the company's earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization.
The three Chinese carriers' EBITDA showed only modest growth in 2018, in the low single-digits.
Gloria Tsuen, senior credit officer at Moody's Investors Service in Hong Kong, said that "4G is revolutionary, while 5G is more evolutionary." As such, carriers globally are reluctant to make substantial investments, since they are skeptical about "how much more people are willing to pay for incremental changes."
On top of the industrywide phenomenon, China's operators are also feeling the squeeze from the government's push for cheaper telecommunications fees. In his latest government work report announced on March 5 at the opening of the National People's Congress, Premier Li Keqiang once again demanded telecom operators "do more to increase broadband speed and lower rates for internet services." This is the third year in a row he made the demand, all but forcing operators to cut mobile data fees by another 20% on average.
When asked about the fall in average revenue per user, China Mobile CEO Li Yue pointed directly to the effect of this policy. "The continuous decline in ARPU is a common problem that we are all facing," he said on Thursday. The fresh directive will only add further pressure on earnings, and Li conceded that the company could only "try to squeeze the extent of the decline."
User fees are a key factor in how much return carriers will be able to get on their 5G investments, but the government seems keen on controlling data prices. "I don't see that letting up over the next year," Tsuen at Moody's said.
For beneficiaries of the new infrastructure, the new technology cannot come soon enough. Lei Jun, the founder and CEO of Chinese electronics company Xiaomi, is betting on 5G to give the smartphone industry a much-needed boost, after global shipments dropped 4.1% in 2018, with sales in China shrinking by more than 10%, according to research firm IDC.
Lei, who dubbed the slowdown "the eve before the 5G era," told reporters on Wednesday that he believes "all smartphone users would upgrade their handset upon the 5G arrival." His company already released its first 5G-enabled smartphone in February, and doubled the number of engineers in its smartphone division to 3,000 last year.
There is a similar logic in the artificial intelligence industry. "AI and 5G actually go hand-in-hand," said Esther Wong, managing director of strategic investment at SenseTime, a Hong Kong-based Chinese unicorn focused on computer vision and deep learning. Speaking at a forum on Thursday, she said a 5G network is required for "AI to be properly commercialized" and hence is "very important for us."
Telecom operators know this.
"The demand for 5G is actually very big," said Chairman Wang of China Unicom. The industry veteran revealed that he is actually receiving a high level of interest from wide range of sectors, such as manufacturing, logistics, transportation, medicine, education and more. But, for the ones taking all the risk, being cautious may be the way to go.
"We need to dig deeper into the search of our 5G business model through technical testing," he said.
Nikkei staff writer Coco Liu in Hong Kong contributed to this story.