China Mobile has more than half a billion customers using its 5G network and is still signing up users at a fair lick.

The world’s biggest mobile operator had 502.6 million 5G customers as of the end of May, it reported late last week. And, importantly, these are actual 5G network users.

For a long time the telco reported 5G package users – that’s customers signed up to 5G tariff plans, regardless of whether or not they used a 5G network – but has changed its reporting to, in its own words, “better reflect its 5G development.” Those half a billion customers all used 5G infrastructure within the past month, China Mobile said.

It goes without saying that that’s a huge figure. And even within the context of the massive Chinese market, it represents decent 5G uptake. China Mobile’s overall mobile customer base came in at 998.4 million – a whisker shy of a billion – at the same date, so we’re talking take-up of more than 50%.

It also reflects a solid growth rate. The telco signed up 7.7 million 5G network customers in May, having recorded 7.3 million net adds the previous month. Prior to that the firm was reporting 5G package customers only, and naturally figures were higher; at the end of 2023 the telco had 794.5 million 5G package customers, with net adds for the most part coming in at between 10 million and 20 million per month.

Smaller rivals China Telecom and China Unicom still report on 5G package customers, which makes it tricky to form a full picture of the Chinese 5G market. The operators had 334.3 million and 273.8 million 5G package customers respectively at the end of May, but actual 5G users probably come in a few hundred million lower, between the two companies.

Indeed, the GSMA in March noted that China had “more than 800 million” 5G mobile connections. The big three together have doubtless added a couple of tens of millions more since then.

In that same announcement the industry body predicted that China would pass the 1 billion 5G connections milestone during the course of this year, and the operators are clearly making progress towards that figure. By the end of 2024 more than half of Chinese mobile connections will be 5G, the GSMA forecast, up from 45% at the time.

5G celebrated its fifth birthday in China earlier this month. Or rather, 6 June marked five years since China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) issued 5G licences to the big three operators and fourth player China Broadnet, reported on Friday.

China Broadnet does not share 5G figures, as far as we can tell, but at last count it was growing pretty slowly. It probably fair to assume it’s still a small outfit, certainly in Chinese terms.

The news outlet cited MIIT figures that claim the telcos have rolled out 3.75 million 5G base stations, as of late April, which means close to a third of all mobile sites in China are 5G-enabled. The ministry also claimed there were 889 million 5G subscribers in the country, or 50.6% of total mobile users, but the parameters of that claim are not wholly clear.

Whatever the true figure, 5G is clearly growing at pace in China. Talk of 45% or 50% 5G uptake is starting to feel like splitting hairs.

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