Sitting through the keynotes by China’s Big Three operators at MWC Shanghai 2024, I was struck by the absence of detail on a development the country’s telecoms network equipment champion has been hyping for months, with Huawei’s push on 5G-Advanced (5G-A) reaching new heights at the three-day conference.

The operator speeches on day one, running nearly an hour, were heavy on strategic positioning such as how the combination of AI and 5G would bring new production methods, leading to super-personalised and flexible manufacturing.

The China Mobile and China Unicom chiefs surprisingly mentioned 5G-A just once, while China Telecom’s chair managed to avoid referencing it, but he did highlight the company was one of the first in the world to connect a 5G phone directly to satellite through three proprietary technologies and its low-altitude economy plans (focused on drones and non-terrestrial networks).

China Mobile chairman Yang Jie kicked off the conference by stating: “We are standing at a new stage in the digital intelligence revolution.”

The chair added it aims to “transform and upgrade our public information service offerings”, while at the same time reshape consumer services by integrating AI agents.

He echoed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s now popular policy concept of “new quality productive forces” a total of seven times in his 18-minute talk.

China Telecom chairman Ke Ruiwen stated “we are in the era of cloud plus internet plus AI,” which aims to transform the way the company operates its networks, “accelerating the agility and nimbleness” of its 5G network.

Ke added AI will also contribute to energy savings, a reduction in carbon emissions and improve the customer experience.

He offered a few more specifics, vowing to continue to upgrade its integrated 5G product offering and promote industrial devices equipped with 5G capabilities. The operator also will use generative models and technologies to expand use cases to “ensure 5G networks cover most industrial sectors”.

China Unicom chairman Chen Zhongyue encouraged operators to work together to develop new ways to revive growth in communication services, noting uptake of broadband services inched up just 2.3 per cent last year after growth peaked at about 30 per cent in 2014.

5G-A “milestone”
Meanwhile, David Wang, executive director of the board at Huawei, called the freezing of 3GPP release 18, the first standards unveiled for 5G-A last month, an industry milestone.

In a session the day before MWC Shanghai kicked off, Wang stated 5G-A networks are being deployed to meet network requirements in the AI era by delivering faster speeds, larger capacity and lower latency. “AI applications will soon make a considerable contribution to overall mobile traffic, driving the need for upgrades.”

Judging from the lack of public attention from the three operator bosses, the domestic players, which have spent trillions of yuan deploying nearly 3.8 million 5G base stations over the past five years, appear far from enthusiastic about the next-generation of 5G.

China Mobile alone invested around CNY100 billion ($13.8 billion) annually in its 5G network over that period. It revealed broad plans in March to deliver 5G-A connectivity to more than 300 cities by end-2024, without specifics on the scale or target use cases. In June, the operator said coverage reached 35 cities.

China Telecom held a press conference on Day 2 to reveal its 5G-A action plan, but president Liang Baojun offered no more detail than chairman Ke. Liang said the plan will focus on “deepening practical exploration at three levels: capability building, ecological cooperation and application implementation”. 

There was no mention of target cities, planned coverage area or number of base stations.

Newcomer China Broadnet was equally vague about its 5G-A network rollout plan during a press event, while China Unicom earlier said it began commercial pilots.

A Beijing-based analyst told Mobile World Live that while Chinese operators’ aggressive 5G investments have created new growth, particularly in the enterprise segment (which is leading the world thanks to their extensive deployments), even the Big Three find the continuing investment in 5G-A a daunting task despite its value proposition.

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