China Unicom becomes Middle Kingdom's second carrier with a billion subscribers

Rivals aren't far behind and 5G numbers are huge, but growth is slowing

Chinese mega-carrier China Unicom has claimed it's signed up the billionth subscriber for its "Big Connectivity" service, making it the second Middle Kingdom carrier to operate at that scale.

We know this because China's big three carriers each publish monthly statistics about their subscriber numbers and growth.

China Unicom's update for January 2024 reveals that Big Connectivity – its catch-all term for mobile and fixed voice and data services, used by both humans and IoT devices – reveals that at month's end the service had 1,001.72 million subscribers. Some 263 million of those were 5G subscribers, and 505.7 million were IoT connections.

China Mobile cracked the billion-punter barrier some time ago and reported [PDF] 991,576 million mobile subs as of January (789 million on 5G), plus 300 million wired subscribers.

China Telecom reported 409 million wireless customers (321.7 million of them on 5G), and another 191 million wired customers.

The three carriers between them therefore have 1,373 million 5G subs – a sum larger than the population of any nation, save China and India.

But according to Marbridge Consulting, that number grew by just two million between December 2023 and January 2024, and China Mobile shed five million 5G subs.

A fourth 5G carrier, China Broadnet, has a mere 23 million 5G subscribers – a number that plenty of carriers around the world would envy.

The enormous scale of China's big three telcos arguably benefits us all – they're known OpenStack users and, as that platform is seldom adopted without some customization, there's a solid chance code has crossed the great firewall to reach other users elsewhere.

By way of comparison, as of November 2023 India operated 1,046 million wireless services, according to the most recent statistics [PDF] from the nation's Telecom Regulatory Authority. But India's biggest carriers – Reliance Jio and Airtel – have a mere 424 million and 367 million subscribers.

Web giants regularly crack the billion-user mark. Meta does so for Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram. Google Search, Android, Chrome, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps, the Google Play store, YouTube, and Google Photos are all ten-figure services. Apple and Microsoft both claim over a billion devices run their OSes. ®

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