China is closing in on 700 million 5G subscribers

Chinese telcos added 43.8 million 5G subscribers during October, putting the country on course to comfortably surpass 700 million this month.

The country’s biggest operator by customers, China Mobile, continued to lead the way, adding 24.33 million 5G subscribers, leaving it with a total of 355.52 million. Second-placed China Telecom increased its 5G customer base to 168.49 million, up by 12.95 million on September. Finally, China Unicom added 6.57 million, giving it a total of 143.51 million.

Collectively, China’s telcos boasted 667.52 million 5G subscribers at the end of October, up 7 percent on the month prior. If growth continues on that trajectory, China will have north of 710 million by the end of this month.

Before we go any further, it is worth remembering this figure represents the number of customers that have signed up to a 5G tariff. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are all connected to 5G, or even own 5G-capable handsets.

China Mobile is the only operator out of the three that shares the number of connections, and even then, they are shared on a quarterly rather than monthly basis. In its most recent financial report, it revealed that out of 331 million 5G subscriptions, 160 million were ‘real’ 5G connections at the end of September, compared to 127 million at the end of June. It means just over 48 percent of its 5G customer base are actually using the technology.

What follows is highly speculative, but for the sake of it let’s assume that 48 percent figure is broadly applicable to China Telecom and China Unicom. It means they would have had 80.88 million and 68.89 million real 5G connections respectively by the end of October. Assuming that this proportion is still applicable to China Mobile one month after publishing its latest financials, it would have had 170.65 million. That gives a total of 320.42 million 5G connections by the end of October, or 19.5 percent of total mobile customers.

This could be completely wide of the mark, but on the other hand, CCS Insight last month predicted that 24 percent of mobile customers in China will be using 5G by the end of this year, which is not wildly different to my back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Whatever the real figure might be, with CCS predicting global 5G connections will hit 1.34 billion next year, it is clear that a sizeable chunk of those will be in China.

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