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An illuminated 5G logo is displayed during the 10th Global mobile broadband forum hosted by Chinese tech giant Huawei in Zurich on October 15, 2019. Photo: AFP

China faces setback in 5G ambitions as coronavirus leads to delays in base station installations

  • The Beijing subsidiary of China Mobile, the world’s largest wireless network operator, reportedly said it has postponed installations of base stations
  • The company’s 5G construction plans in 2020 will “definitely be affected” by the coronavirus epidemic, it was quoted as saying

China’s plan to be a 5G front-runner is facing a potential setback as the country’s fight against the spread of the coronavirus has led to delays in installing base stations that enable coverage of the next-generation network.

The Beijing subsidiary of China Mobile said it has postponed installations of base stations due to the outbreak, according to a local report by Chinese newspaper Economic Observer on Tuesday.

“Most property owners are not allowing us to enter and build [base stations] inside,” Beijing Mobile was quoted as saying in the report, adding that 5G construction plans in 2020 will “definitely be affected” by the epidemic. “The company is making adjustments in manpower and equipment, and will make timely modifications to its construction schedule according to changes in the coronavirus situation.”

China Mobile, the world's largest wireless network operator by subscribers, said that it will update the market on its latest overall 5G development plan in March when it announces its full-year results. “In the meantime, we will continue to take measures to ensure network quality across the country and provide quality services to our customers,” it said in reply to the Post’s queries.

The carrier is one of three major telcos – along with China Unicom and China Telecom – that introduced monthly 5G data plans last November in 50 major Chinese cities and are leading the infrastructure outlay of the network across the mainland. China Unicom and China Telecom did not immediately respond to requests for comment about any potential change in their 5G roll-out plans.

Chinese device brands to face sales, supply issues due to coronavirus

China is expected to be a leader in 5G, with an estimated 600 million users by 2025. The next-generation wireless technology – which offers faster data rates, reduced latency, energy savings and massive device connectivity – is a priority in its race against the US for dominance in fields such as factory automation, robotics and autonomous driving.

By the end of last year, 130,000 base stations had been installed across China, according to Miao Wei, the nation's Minister of Industry and Information Technology. This included about 11,000 in Beijing, official state-run press agency Xinhua reported, with an estimated 400,000 more to be installed in the country this year.

But the coronavirus outbreak, which had killed more than 1,100 and infected more than 44,600 in mainland China as of Wednesday, has upended tech supply chains. China enforced mandatory factory shutdowns in at least 24 of its 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions from January 31 to February 9 in an effort to contain the outbreak.

“The epidemic will have a substantial impact on the 5G roll-out,” said Wang Xiaohui, deputy dean at the Institute of Internet Industry at Tsinghua University. “It will cause a labour shortage and affect construction due to the extended schedule.”

In the short term, the outbreak will inevitably slow down China’s deployment of 5G networks, Kai Cui, senior research manager at IDC China, said: “We have already seen 5G bidding projects postponed to varying degrees.”

However, in the longer run, Cui said there may be an upside for the industry as “self-quarantine and telecommuting, especially, will increase the penetration rate of the mobile internet and accelerate the digital transformation of companies”.


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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Base station delays may set back 5G ambitions