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China Mobile scrambles to catch up after supporting wrong 'internet of things' standard

World’s largest wireless network operator put at a disadvantage by central government’s decision to back narrow band IoT, a standard it does not support

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2017, 9:45am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 6:36pm

China Mobile, the world’s largest wireless network operator by subscribers, may be scrambling to catch up with rivals China Unicom and China Telecom to deploy so-called internet of things (IoT) infrastructure, following the Chinese government’s directive on a preferred standard for that technology.

The domestic telecommunications market leader, with 863.4 million mobile subscribers as of May 31, has found itself in that position after the Ministry of Industry & Information Technology (MIIT) decided in June to support the standard called narrow band internet of things (NB-IoT) for all low-power, wide-area IoT services in the country, according to Jefferies equity analyst Edison Lee.

The MIIT is aiming to develop 1.5 million mobile base stations that support the NB-IoT standard by 2020, up from an estimated 400,000 this year.

“As future evolutions of NB-IoT will be integrated into 5G, China is keen to support it aggressively,” Lee said on Monday.

China Mobile, AT&T collaborate on Internet of Things to drive its deployment on the mainland

IoT represents a super network of networks, consisting of internet-linked devices, sensors and software applications embedded in various physical objects to gather, send and receive data for analysis.

At the Mobile World Congress Shanghai conference last week, many of the featured IoT initiatives were related to government projects such as traffic control, smart parking, air quality control, water quality and weather monitoring.

IoT services are currently being provided on the mainland by network operators through technologies such as LoRa and SigFox. China Mobile already has 120,000 connected IoT devices on its 2.5G and 3G networks.

China Mobile is facing a dilemma,” Jefferies’ Lee said.

The operator must decide on whether to quickly upgrade its Global System for Mobile (GSM)-standard 2G network to support NB-IoT, so it does not fall behind Unicom and China Telecom, or wait for the MIIT to give it a new license to redevelop that network for 4G.

Services based on the current iteration of NB-IoT work on GSM-standard 2G networks as well as 4G networks based on the standard called frequency-division duplex long-term evolution (FDD-LTE), which has been implemented by both Unicom and China Telecom.

In comparison, China Mobile’s 4G network is based on the mainland-developed standard called time-division long-term evolution (TD-LTE).

Lee estimated that China Mobile could spend as much as 1.5 billion yuan (US$221 million) to upgrade its 2G network to support NB-IoT in the event the MIIT does not grant it an FDD-LTE license to redevelop that network for 4G.

As future evolutions of NB-IoT will be integrated into 5G, China is keen to support it aggressively
Edison Lee, Jefferies equity analyst

Ahead of obtaining a new license, China Mobile has been working with Datang Telecom Technology to test more than 1,000 4G base stations that support both FDD-LTE and TD-LTE standards.

Lee pointed out that China Telecom, which has 300,000 mobile base stations capable of supporting NB-IoT, was well ahead in the market.

“Unicom will likely build NB-IoT capable 4G base stations on the 1800-megahertz spectrum soon,” he said.

Global management consultancy Accenture has said that measures by mainland China to build up its IoT capacity and increase such investments, especially in manufacturing industries, could translate to a 1.3 per cent boost in the country’s annual gross domestic product by 2030, cumulatively adding an estimated US$1.8 trillion to the economy by that time.