China Mobile gives true picture of 5G uptake, rivals do not

Judging by the first-quarter figures shared by China’s big three telcos over the past few days, there are probably already more than 400 million 5G customers in China.

The trouble is, only about half of them are actually using 5G services; the rest are simply taking advantage of attractive 5G tariff plans.

The operators together had 391.8 million 5G package customers – that is, those on 5G plans – at the end of March. With joint monthly net adds coming in at 30.8 million, we can safely say the country has now passed the 400 million mark. But only market leader China Mobile is willing to split out its figures to show how many actual users it has.

The telco reported having a staggering 188.8 million 5G package customers at the end of Q1 on the back of 15.6 million net adds in March, which is about half a million more new additions than China Unicom and China Telecom claimed between them. It also disclosed for the first time that it had 92.8 million 5G network customers, which it defines as “mobile customers who have used the 5G network in the current month and stayed on the network at the end of the month.” In other words, true 5G customers.

That gives us a much clearer view on what is happening in China’s 5G market. China Mobile is by far the biggest of the three players, with a total mobile base of 940 million and significantly more 5G package customers than its rivals: China Unicom had 91.9 million 5G package customers at end-March while China Telecom on Wednesday reported having 111.23 million. China Unicom and China Telecom do not – yet – split out actual 5G users, but if the proportion is similar to that of the market leader, then we’re looking at about 192 million active 5G customers in China.

Based on recent press reports, that might be a conservative estimate. The Global Times, along with various other regional publications, last week quoted China’s vice minister of industry and information technology Liu Liehong as saying that China has built the world’s largest 5G network, comprising 792,000 5G base stations as of the end of February. Standalone 5G infrastructure covers all prefecture-level cities, he said.

The MIIT official also put the number of 5G terminal connections in China at 260 million, although it is not clear whether the methodology behind that figure mirrors China Mobile’s definition of a 5G network user.

Either way, we’re not miles away from the quarter of a billion mark in China, and that’s a big number by anyone’s standards.

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