It will be two to three years before the mainland's telecommunications operators begin to see benefits from the growth in the number of 3G subscribers, after investing more than 160 billion yuan (HK$181.73 billion) to develop their networks. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology yesterday said the number of 3G subscribers on the mainland had reached 15 million since it first issued a licence in January last year. Three operators have licences, but they have been slow to reap the benefits as competition intensifies. China Mobile, the world's biggest mobile operator and the first to receive a mainland 3G licence, has seen its market share fall from 90 per cent to 50 per cent since the two others - China Unicom and China Telecom Corp - joined the fray. Unicom, the mainland's No2 mobile operator, is still under pressure to integrate its new business after the industry shake-up in 2008 saw it combine with China Netcom Group Corp. A report by Royal Bank of Scotland Group last month said Unicom was making major changes to its structure to integrate its workforce, including combining the mobile and fixed-line operations with the 3G and GSM network departments. All three operators reported disappointing earnings last year and analysts said this would continue as competition grew. 'There will be another round of competition in the telecommunications sector,' said Bertram Lai, an analyst at CIMB-GK Securities. 'This will mean more expenses with operators spending more on marketing to attract 3G subscribers.' There are more than 720 million mobile-telephone subscribers on the mainland but most are still serviced by 2G networks. Analysts said a major expense for operators would be to expand 3G coverage outside of the cities, which would require more base stations. 'I think it will take a number of years before these operators can turn their 3G investment into profits,' said Alex Lee, an analyst with Taifook Securities. Lai said that while business at Unicom was still hampered by the Netcom integration, China Telecom was better positioned to promote its 3G service due to its stronger marketing team, which means China Mobile could lose more market share.