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13 September 2021

China pushes 5G indoor coverage for major cities

China’s meteoric 5G roll-out has not so far been matched in the indoor enterprise sector. One factor, as in some other markets, has been a failure to issue private or enterprise network licences. All spectrum remains administered by the big three MNOS plus China Broadcasting Network (CBN), the new fourth mobile player. But a major expansion of indoor 5G is emerging in the public sector as major cities unveil plans for deployments in hospitals, railway stations and universities.

The capital Beijing has just unveiled plans to expand 5G network coverage in key public area categories, including hospitals, universities and train stations, where indoor coverage will play a major role. This will build out from coverage already established for the main downtown areas of the capital, as well as the city’s central business district and Olympic area for the forthcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

Then Shanghai, the country’s biggest city with almost 25m population, has indicated that all of its 32 tunnels and four cross-river bridges will be covered by 5G by the end of 2021. The work is being carried out by China Mobile and Shanghai Tunnel Engineering.

China’s 5G private network roll-out reached a critical stage in 2021 after rapid expansion the previous year, as is discussed in the latest report from RAN Research, the forecasting and analytics sister of Wireless Watch. The report points out China has been deploying private networks at a significant rate, despite tensions between some enterprises and the big operators. By the end of 2020 over 800 private networks had been deployed by the country’s three biggest MNOs between them, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom.

An impasse had been reached by mid-2021 because many enterprises and also public sector organizations have been lobbying for the same freedom as in other countries to deploy their own networks in spectrum leased directly, rather than relying on the three MNOs, which still control private networks within their own infrastructures. So far, regulator Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has held out against this pressure to issue spectrum to enterprises.

However, there are signals that the government itself will concede to pressure from major enterprises and also the country’s big technology players. Tencent Cloud Network for example had been publicly criticizing the high costs and poor flexibility of the operators’ private 5G offerings, while arguing that they were lagging behind other countries in quality of service and ability to offload to support edge computing.

There has been some concession to flexibility from the operators. They have been offering private network services in tiers, with China Mobile having a basic package running as a network slice, a mid-tier public/private hybrid, and a top-tier purely private network with dedicated infrastructure. However, that infrastructure is still installed and managed by the operator and runs in its own spectrum.

Within this framework various collaborations have occurred. Unicom has been collaborating with Huawei and appliance firm Gree Electric over a private network using edge cloud and 5G slicing. Unicom conceded though that slicing had further to go before being fit for the most demanding use cases. Applications that have been demonstrated include remote monitoring and medical consultation, as well as live broadcasting to enterprise staff.

Unicom is perhaps under most pressure to ensure the 5G networks it builds meet the needs of large enterprises and cloud companies, as several major organizations, including Tencent and Alibaba, are among its investors.

We believe that China will soon allow enterprises direct access to spectrum. But even if that does not happen, China’s private 5G deployments will still surge over the coming years after a slight slowdown in 2021 on the back of the existing model conducted by the three operators.