MWC Shanghai has been all about 5G this week, as China’s big three mobile network operators prepare to launch next generation mobile network services on a truly epic scale

While China might not have been first to market on 5G, you get the impression that when it does launch next-generation mobile network services early next year, the country will be in a position to lead for years to come.

For all President Trump’s guff and bluster about America leading the world in 5G, there is little doubt in my mind that China will see the most comprehensive rollout of 5G services in 2020.

At MWC Shanghai this year, there has been a palpable sense of excitement over China’s forthcoming 5G deployment, and rightly so. China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile all have ambitious plans to deliver true gigabit 5G in the first half of 2020.

The scale of the task is galling. It’s all very well for countries like Switzerland, The UAE and The UK to be touting their first-for-5G credentials – but rolling out comprehensive 5G services in a country the size of China is a different proposition altogether. You’re talking about a population of 1.4 billion people – a mere 18 per cent of the entire world’s population – spread over 9.5 million square kilometres. An estimated 500 million Chinese people live in hard to reach, rural areas.

The potted wisdom in Shanghai is that China’s big three operators will require multiple hundreds of thousands of base stations each, with the total number of base stations needed in China potentially exceeding one million.

Little surprise then that a whole bevy of Chinese and international vendors were rolling out the big guns at MWC Shanghai in an attempt to woo China’s mobile network operators.

In his keynote address on day one of the show, Huawei’s rotating chairman, Ken Hu, said that his company would attempt to supply 500,000 base stations to the global market by the end of the year. Hu said that Huawei had already shipped 150,000 base stations around the world, and it is a safe assumption that a good proportion of the remaining 350,000 units will go towards feeding China’s insatiable domestic demand.

Regardless of the outcome of President Trump’s campaign of anti-Chinese propaganda, Hu assured MWC19 attendees that Huawei’s US ban would have “no impact whatsoever” on its ability to deliver on its domestic and international commitments, saying that Huawei was operating on a “business as usual” basis.

ZTE is also expected to win a substantial number of orders in its home market, as it looks to build on its existing experience in the industry.

Speaking to journalists at a press conference at the show, ZTE’s senior vice president for Wireless, said that ZTE would continue to work closely with all three of China’s mobile network operators. So far this year, ZTE has supplied 50,000 5G base stations to international and domestic markets.

“We are engaging with all three of the Chinese operators very closely. We have worked with them on their 2G, 3G and 4G networks and we are really confident of being able to meet the demand in China. It’s a huge opportunity for us,” he said.

Ericsson’s CEO was also in town to remind local operators that “time had proven Ericsson to be a trusted partner in China”. Borje Ekholm used his keynote address to highlight the plethora of Industry 4.0 solutions and applications that would accompany China’s gargantuan 5G rollout.

“We are standing at a historical moment. The possibilities of the fourth Industrial Revolution are limited only by our imagination, as we work to tackle everything from climate issues to the role of technology in our societies,” said Ekholm.

In addition to its Industry 4.0 shenanigans, Ericsson was also keen to talk up its collaboration with China Telecom, which saw the pair conduct the world’s first stand-alone 5G call over 3.5GHz spectrum.


China’s multi billion-dollar R&D commitment to 5G

With both Huawei and ZTE opening new research and development campuses this year, it is clear that Chinese vendors are throwing huge amounts of money at 5G R&D. This has been born out by the findings of the most recent IPlytics report, which logs patent applications to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Chinese tech firms dominated the list, with Huawei filing a massive 2,160 5G Standard-Essential Patents (SEP) and ZTE filing 1,424, making the Chinese duo first and third on the list respectively. In a year that has seen both companies endure the capricious wrath of the US government, that represents an amazing commitment to innovation and investment. For me, this is why China will win the 5G long-game – its relentless commitment to investment in R&D. 

My visit to Shanghai began with a visit to ZTE’s R&D centre, where the company was showcasing the fruits of its labours over the last 12 months. In addition to the myriad practical use cases that will enable 5G – ZTE was keen to show off the fun side of 5G as well, with everything from 5G drones to 8K UHD sports streaming and Augmented Reality viewing experiences on display.  

Some of these looked like potential game changers and all of them were genuinely entertaining, providing some context for the 5G furore that lay ahead at MWC Shanghai.

People can describe 5G use cases to you until they are blue in the face (and believe me, in my case they do) but its not until you get up close and personal with them that you really appreciate the transformative potential of 5G.  

My day began with a ride on ZTE’s 5G bus, where we clocked download speeds of 745Mbps en route to the show. Our route was covered by China Telecom’s pre-commercial 5G network, which uses 100MHz of 3.5GHz spectrum. ZTE were keen to point out that their flagship Axon 10 handset has achieved a top speed of 1.4Gbps on this exact network – try getting those kind of speeds in Europe!

We also placed a live 5G call with a colleague at ZTE’s booth at MWC Shanghai, which you can see right here…



5G is obviously far more than just faster mobile broadband and clearer voice calls. The technology is set to revolutionise consumer services across a range of industries. ZTE is doing some interesting work in the field of Augmented Reality – their Magic Mirror technology helps to bring museum exhibits to life and is sure to be a big hit in the tourism industry. Have a look here…



Finally, drones are one of the key use cases that gets touted around for 5G. At their Shanghai R&D Centre, ZTE was showcasing how drones can be used to minimise the human footprint in ecologically sensitive areas. You can watch the demo right here…



Looking ahead to 2020

When China’s operators kick off their 5G rollout in the first quarter of 2020 they will be looking to hit the ground running and scale up their operations fast. China Telecom alone has plans to launch 5G in 40 towns and cities across the country in 2020. All the indications are that by the time MWC Shanghai 2020 comes around, China will have established itself as a genuine world leader in 5G. I, for one, can’t wait to come back and see it all first hand.