As the international “race to 5G” approaches its second major public milestone — launches of commercial 5G networks — China’s government and local companies are rushing to launch networks and hardware. In a new tweet, Xiaomi has teased its first 5G-compatible phone, while Bloomberg separately reported today that the Chinese government is considering a massive merger of two national carriers to hasten 5G deployment.
Xiaomi appeared to reveal a 5G-ready Mi Mix 3 via tweets from company spokesperson Donovan Sung, most notably showing a full-screened phone with “5G” in its status bar and a 4G/5G radio testing display in the background. The key image depicts a 4G radio operating on 2.5GHz spectrum, with 5G New Radio antennas operating on 3.5GHz and multiple 28GHz spectra.
In other words, the phone will be capable of supporting both the midband and “millimeter wave” frequencies that 5G networks will use in suburban and urban areas. “We’ve successfully tested 5G data connections on Xiaomi phones,” Sung said in a subsequent tweet, “and we can’t wait for the official rollout of 5G next year!”
Unfortunately, the latter comment raises some ambiguity as to the company’s 5G timeline. Xiaomi has previously said that the Mi Mix 3 will be launched in October, spotlighting the image below with promises of a “next generation full screen display” and “sliding form factor.” Unlike the company’s current full-screen but ‘notched’ phones, the 5G phone appears to be identical to the Mi Mix 3, with just its speaker and camera housing retracted.
It’s possible that the 5G phone is a next-generation prototype and that the company is using the prospect of future 5G support merely to build excitement for its October reveal. In theory, an unfulfilled promise would likely disappoint some people.
Realistically, however, Xiaomi’s need to include 5G hardware depends entirely on the availability of 5G networks, and China — the company’s primary market — is still in the process of allocating 5G wireless frequencies, so Chinese consumers couldn’t use 5G capabilities even if a phone had them. Test 5G networks are expected to be running in China by year’s end, with commercial networks debuting in 2019.
Last week, China reportedly decided to divide up three 5G frequencies unevenly between its three government-backed carriers, China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom. Unusually, while top carrier China Mobile is expected to get spectrum on both the 2.6GHz and 4.9GHz bands, the two smaller carriers are each said to be getting separate blocks of spectrum on the 3.5GHz band — the one that is most prized internationally and is expected to become the main global frequency of 5G.
According to today’s report, China is considering merging China Telecom and China Unicom to form a single provider with over 590 million subscribers, a better size to rival China Mobile’s over 900 million subscribers. The merger would leave the resulting companies as the two largest wireless carriers in the world, enabling China to accelerate its 5G deployments and exert more control over the global 5G standards process. Specifically, while the Chinese government is funding all of the carriers, the merged company would be able to allocate necessary 5G investments more easily than two companies working separately and with fewer resources.
Still in the discussion stage, the potential merger apparently has taken on new urgency in light of the U.S.-China trade war, which has become interwoven with concerns over 5G and national security. U.S. bans of Huawei and ZTE apparently provoked the Chinese government to further prioritize 5G development, including focusing on recouping its significant investments in wireless infrastructure. However, analysts continue to question whether the merger might damage increasing market competitiveness and increase monopolistic practices within China, as most countries have three to four major carriers.