China had deployed a total of 792,000 5G base stations as of the end of February 2021, with the number of mobile terminals connected to the network tallying 260 million, according to the Chinese government.
Liu Liehong, vice minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), shared the numbers during a press conference this week. The ministry also estimated 5G mobile phone shipments in China would account for 80% of all shipments in the second half of this year.
While debate rages on about who’s winning the race to 5G and whether it’s even a worthwhile debate, analysts cautioned about how comparisons are made between China and the U.S.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington D.C. think tank, pointed out that China’s mobile operators tend to count base stations, whereas U.S. service providers report physical sites. “Usually there are multiple base stations for each cell site or tower, so it’s important not to conflate these numbers,” ITIF wrote in a report at the end of 2020.
"A cell site usually refers to the entire area of a given tower, which includes potentially multiple base stations and antennas using different spectrum. The term 'base station' generally refers to the equipment each carrier uses to send signals over multiple antennas at the cell site," ITIF added.
There’s also the issue of how Chinese operators report their 5G subscriber base. For example, China Mobile reported this week that it has 189 million 5G package customers and 92.76 million 5G network customers.
But those “package customers” aren’t all using a 5G device. “5G package customers” is a blanket term often used by Chinese operators to refer to anyone on a 5G subscription, regardless of whether they actually have a 5G device or access to a 5G network, according to the ITIF report.
The Seattle area-based Chetan Sharma Consulting firm estimated the U.S. had between 30 million to 40 million 5G subscribers at the end of 2020. China had about 180 million 5G subs at the same point by Sharma’s estimates, not including the “5G package” customers that aren’t necessarily using 5G.
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While China’s resolve in 5G can’t be ignored, one has to consider its population compared to the rest of the world. When adjusted for population size, the U.S. and China have a similar 5G deployment pace, according to ITIF.
China does plan to focus on improving its performance when it comes to speed. China's mobile network speed ranks fourth among 139 countries and regions, Liu said, citing data from an international speed measuring agency. The government plans to shift its focus from network "coverage and popularization" to "improvement of speed and quality."