“They’ve made this a national priority. It’s part of the [Communist] Party‘s ability to show that it’s delivering the goods,” said Paul Triolo, head of geotechnology at the Eurasia Group consultancy.
“And in the middle of the trade dispute and the actions against Huawei, it’s even more important for China to show that they are continuing to move forward despite all these challenges.”
China’s three state-owned wireless carriers — China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom — on Thursday unveiled 5G subscription packages available starting Friday.
They will charge by speed rather than data used. To enjoy the peak speed of 1 Gbps, Unicom customers will pay about $45 a month.
To describe the difference in speeds, analysts say that 4G is like a skateboard while 5G is like a rocket ship, presenting a huge advantage for applications such as video gaming and streaming services. More than 10 million subscribers have responded to cut-rate deals and preregistered for the service, according to state media.
“This 5G technology is part of an overall, far-reaching revolution, and it will bring brand-new changes to the economic society,” China Telecom President Ke Ruiwen said at the launch Thursday.
While some countries such as South Korea, Australia and parts of the United States have started 5G pilots, the Chinese government has embarked on a centrally planned push to roll out the technology on a commercial basis and give it an unassailable lead in the global race to install 5G wireless networks.
“The commercialization of 5G technology is a great measure of [President] Xi Jinping's strategic aim of turning China into a cyber power, as well as an important milestone in China’s information communication industry development,” said Wang Xiaochu, president of China Unicom.
Xi has described the world as on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution, one characterized by advances in information technology and artificial intelligence, analysts at Trivium China, a consultancy, wrote in a research note this week. “Xi wants to make sure that China is at the forefront of this new revolution — getting 5G up and running is a way to get a leg up in that race,” they said.
About 13,000 base stations that enable the 5G network have been installed in the capital, the Beijing communications administration said this week, and 10,000 are operating.
The central government wants 5G coverage extended to cover all of Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou by the end of the year. The country’s largest carrier, China Mobile, which has 900 million cellphone subscribers, says it will be able to offer 5G services in more than 50 cities this year.
China is forecast to spend between $130 billion and $217 billion on 5G between 2020 and 2025, according to a study by the state-run China Academy of Information and Communications Technology.
“Two robots accurately planted 12 guide pins into the patients’ spines,” Beijing Daily reported after a surgeon manipulated robots performing operations in Shandong and Zhejiang provinces. “The signal transmission ran smoothly during the surgery without latency, despite the distance of over 1,000 miles.”
The advent of 5G could also enable some of China’s more repressive applications of technology, such as facial recognition. Travelers will be able to enjoy faster check-in with facial recognition systems at Beijing’s gargantuan new airport, a China Unicom representative said at a 5G exhibition in the capital accompanying the commercial rollout.
But there are challenges ahead.
For one, relatively few people have 5G-enabled phones. Huawei has released phones that can support 5G, as have compatriot Oppo and South Korean manufacturer Samsung. Apple, which makes up only 6 percent of the Chinese market, is not expected to release a 5G-capable iPhone until next year.
Further, there are questions about whether Huawei, the main manufacturer of base stations, can keep up its production pace now that it is on an American blacklist. The Trump administration, citing national security concerns, added Huawei and 70 of its affiliates to its entity list in May, blocking them from buying American parts and components.
“It’s going to be really hard for Huawei to overcome the supply chain problems,” said Triolo of the Eurasia Group. “Basically, the United States has Swiss-cheesed their supply chain, and there are big question marks hanging over Huawei’s ability to plug the holes.”
The technology is at the heart of a bitter dispute between China and the United States. Washington has expressed concern that 5G hardware made by Chinese manufacturers might contain hidden “back doors” that could enable spying.
“There are mounting reasons to believe that the Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE pose an unacceptable risk to U.S. national security,” Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a speech this week.