3G mobile diversity in China

China’s Ministry MIIT granted three different 3G cellphone licenses on January 7, 2009:

  • a TD-SCDMA license to China Mobile (457 million GSM subscribers)
  • a wCDMA license to China Unicom (133 million GSM subscribers)
  • a CDMA2000 license to China Telecom (43 million CDMA subscribers acquired in 2008 from China Unicom, 216 million fixnet phone subscribers, 38 million broadband subscribers)

MIIT estimates that the operators will invest about US$ 41 Billion for 3G over the next two years, ie about US$ 20.5 Billion/year – about the same annual rate as Japan’s 3G investments every year over the last 8 years since 3G introduction.

Network technology diversity (instead of the Government deciding on a single radio technology standard) means that China’s mobile market a few years down the road may have some similarities to Japan’s today. Several Japanese companies, including “time machine company” SoftBank are working to bring 3G mobile services and technologies from Japan to China.

In our opinion, competition between different 3G radio network technologies is one of the factors driving Japan’s 3G success story.

MIIT decided not to abandon CDMA2000, in order to enhance competition between technologies. Another factor may have been that Japan’s CDMA2000 operator KDDI was initially much more successful in bringing 3G to market than competitors DoCoMo and Vodafone (which sold Japan operations to SoftBank).

In Japan it was not market leader DoCoMo or Vodafone, but KDDI with CDMA2000 winning the 3G introduction battle. Better be prepared for surprises in China too, and don’t underestimate China Telecom.

US$ 41 billion for 3G in China over 2 years is similar to the figures for Japan.

Japan’s mobile operators have invested a around US$ 15 – 20 Billion every year for more than 10 years (for details see our JCOMM report), very similar in size to expected annual 3G investments for all of China.

Japan’s 3G introduction took about 8-9 years (from October 2001 until 2009/2010 – Japan’s last 2G phone was shipped in December 2007). Therefore we expect 3G introduction to take about 10 years for China – could be faster because China can learn from 3G introduction in other countries.

China's planned 3G investments compared to Japanese mobile phone network investments
China’s planned 3G investments compared to Japanese mobile phone network investments

China opts for network diversity – like US and Japan

The figure below – from our JCOMM report about Japan’s telecom sector – shows the 2G -> 3G transition in Japan, where several networks with different technologies compete in the market place. We believe this competition between different technologies is a key factor for the rapid success of 3G in Japan.

China having chosen multiple competing technologies, we may see a similar 3G success story as in Japan, however with much larger subscription numbers.

Japan's mobile network diversity - overview of competing networks
Japan’s mobile network diversity – overview of competing networks

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