China passes half a billion 5G subscriptions and adds at least 190k new 5G base stations in six months

Carriers are sharing kit to preserve cash – now for the private 5G boom


China had over half a billion 5G subscribers and over a million 5G base stations as of June 30, but the nation's big three mobile carriers have warned of a slowdown.

The Register's numbers come from repeating our exercise from March 2021, when we pored over annual reports from China Telecom, China Unicom, and China Mobile, to find a total of 322 million 5G subscribers and 1,150,000 operating base stations.

As of yesterday, the three mega-carriers have all announced their results for the first half of the year, so we've repeated the exercise. Here are the results:

Carrier 5G subs total (millions) New 5G subs in 2021 (millions) 5G base stations New 5G base stations 2021 Total subscribers (millions)
China Mobile 251 86 501,000 111,000 946
China Unicom 121 42.2 460,000 80,000 310
China Telecom 131 44.5 460,000 80,000 362
Totals 503 172.7 1,421,000* 271,000 1,618

All three carriers also reported improvements in average revenue per user, revenue growth of nine per cent or more, and big profits. All reported billions of yuan spent on infrastructure.

Impressive, right?

Maybe not so much. For starters, China Unicom and China Telecom have accelerated their infrastructure-sharing arrangements, hence our asterisk on the total of operational base stations in the table above – the carriers are probably managing that many units, but there are fewer physical units in place.

The two have also started sharing their 4G infrastructure.

China Mobile is also collaborating on network builds. It teamed with China Broadcasting Network Corporation to share a network operating in the 700MHz band.

China Unicom reported decreased capital expenditure as a result, as did China Telecom. Supply chain issues were one reason for the dip, but the sheer scale of the existing 5G rollout and collaboration were also factors.

All three carriers were bullish about winning many more 5G subscribers, especially by targeting corporate customers.

China Mobile, for example, signed 900 contracts for provincial-level 5G projects and 452 deals for dedicated 5G networks. ®

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