China launches commercial 5G, but it’s a month late

China’s commercial 5G launch is happening November 1, a full month after plans called for launching in connection with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. For a double whammy, it doesn’t appear to be launching with Standalone (SA) 5G New Radio (NR) as once had been expected.

Citing a source from ZTE, China Daily earlier this year reported that China planned to start commercial use of 5G nationwide on October 1. The plan was to coincide the launch with the celebration around the founding of China—a big deal that was observed with a series of ceremonial events around Beijing.

However, this week officials announced that China’s three major telecom providers—China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom—would make their 5G commercial debut on Friday, November 1, launching in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, with the goal to bring 5G to more than 50 cities by the end of the year.

SA vs. NSA

Originally, China tried to launch 5G with a Standalone 5G New Radio core. “That didn’t happen,” said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, who was in Shanghai for a Huawei Connect event two weeks before the 70th anniversary. “They (operators) moved heaven and earth to get it ready for October 1st and they were a month late,” he said. “It just shows you how difficult 5G actually is.”

The SA core for 5G, which U.S. operators also are moving to next year after launching first with the non-standalone (NSA) version that uses LTE as an anchor, offers major latency advances for edge computing and more. Granted, an NSA core provides faster internet, but not the bells and whistles that SA offers.

Even if 3GPP is still working on specifications, operators could launch with pre-standard gear if they had it ready. “The real killer is Standalone core,” Entner said. For Chinese operators, “it’s like twice getting egg on their face."

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Liu Hong, head of Technology in China for GSMA, confirmed to Fierce that operators in China this week launched with the NSA version of 5G NR.

In the U.S., AT&T offers its 5G service to business customers in more than 20 cities, while Verizon has pledged to launch mobile 5G in 30 cities by the end of this year. Sprint has expanded coverage in the nine cities where it’s commercially launched a 5G service. But T-Mobile has said it will cover 200 million PoPs with its 5G on 600 MHz by the end of this year, encompassing more areas than the other carriers are covering with their spectrum.

Since it’s a coordinated, government subsidized launch in China, its deployment over the next few years will be aggressive and the number of subscribers will be big out of the gate. That’s in contrast to how it lagged behind in 4G, according to Chetan Sharma of Chetan Sharma Consulting.  

“We are starting at a very different point in 5G relative to 4G where the U.S. clearly led and dominated,” he said. With 5G, China will likely lead in terms of subscribers—they’ve already reportedly lined up more than 10 million pre-registrations for 5G—and it has the scale that the U.S. can’t match. The GSMA estimates that China will have 460 million 5G connections by 2025, 28% of all total connections.

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But in terms of the oft-quoted “race to 5G,” each party or country will use a different variable to define how they're ahead, and it’s up to the audience to figure out what’s real and what’s not. “That’s where it gets a bit messy,” Sharma said.

For example, the U.S. can say it’s allocated the most spectrum for 5G, but the higher bands at millimeter wave are not as useful as the mid-bands that places like China are using. Operators and vendors have been pressing the FCC for some time now to allocate more mid-band spectrum for 5G.

Variables apply to timing as well, and that can be a moving target. It’s worth noting that Chinese officials seemed to imply they were two months ahead of schedule by commercially launching their 5G now despite the earlier time table.

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While trade tensions remain high between the U.S. and China, smaller U.S.-based vendors are taking advantage of the situation by emphasizing their location and vying for the chance to supply to U.S. carriers, but their prospects of doing business in China are dim. Ericsson and Nokia are getting some business in China, but they’re still going up against the home-grown favorites, Huawei and ZTE.

Clearly, the U.S. operators don’t compete directly with the Chinese operators for 5G customers, so it really doesn’t matter who develops nationwide 5G first, noted Joe Madden, founder and president of Mobile Experts.

“However, whichever country has better 5G networks will take a leading position in the development of edge computing applications, with cloud platforms that live on top of the 5G network,” he said. “At a global level, Alibaba will be competing with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.  So, at that level, having a solid 5G network is like building a good interstate highway system… it will lead to future economic development.”

Article updated Nov. 1 with additional comment from GSMA.