Closely following the launches of early 5G networks in the United States, South Korea, and Europe, China Unicom has decided to move up its commercial 5G rollout to May 2019, accelerating the start of consumer 5G services in China. The largely state-owned carrier announced the news tonight at its Partner Conference in Shanghai alongside 5G chipmaker Qualcomm and a host of device makers.
This evening’s announcement is significant in establishing China’s place in the “race to 5G,” which has been somewhat ambiguous despite rollouts elsewhere in the world. While the gigantic, populous country boasts the world’s largest mobile user base, it took years to bring 4G services online, though it scaled quickly thereafter, establishing China as the world’s largest market for mobile devices.
5G is “a very different scenario,” Qualcomm 5G marketing director Ignacio Contreras tells VentureBeat, and is “coming fast” to the country. Instead of lagging behind, China will offer 5G at the beginning of its lifecycle, though it’s unclear just how geographically widespread the high-speed, low-latency networks will actually be at first. The carrier says it will offer initial service in seven cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Shenzhen, and Xiong’an New Area.
In the similarly capacious United States, Verizon and AT&T have launched 5G networks in “parts of” over 20 cities, albeit with decidedly spotty service. Three carriers in the much smaller nation of South Korea launched similarly partial 5G coverage in major cities this month, and Switzerland’s SwissCom debuted something closer to nationwide coverage last week, notably with roughly half the land mass to blanket with service.
Following a recent demonstration of 8K VR streaming over 5G in Chongqing, China Unicom is offering conference visitors the chance to try live 5G service demos, including 5G cloud gaming and high-definition video streaming. The carrier is also showing off some of the initial 5G devices that will work with its network, which will rely solely on mid-band spectrum at first, and the non-standalone version of 5G NR to speed adoption across the territory.
“China Unicom is excited to work closely with the broader ecosystem to accelerate 5G launch in China,” said China Unicom network expansion head Qiang Fu. “Because accelerating the path to 5G in the unified 3GPP specification is critical to the industry and consumers, China Unicom has been committed to collaborating with partners across the industry to provide users with 5G NR-compliant products and services that will enable successful 5G commercialization.”
China Unicom’s launch will be backed by numerous Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 modem-based 5G devices from Chinese companies, most notably including OnePlus, OPPO, Vivo, Xiaomi, and ZTE. Initially, many of these devices will be fairly similar to one another thanks to their use of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chipset, but there will be variations in both form factor and pricing.
For instance, flexible-screened Alpha smartwatch maker Nubia is releasing a “mini 5G” smartphone designed to be smaller than the roughly 6.4-inch-screened 5G phones other carriers have shown. And Xiaomi is expected to offer Chinese consumers a 5G phone in the sub-$700 price range, well below the $1,000 and up premium pricetags favored by LG’s and Samsung’s South Korean smartphones.
Other companies will offer 5G-ready devices for the Chinese market. Domestic manufacturer Huawei has promised to offer aggressively priced 5G devices with its own Balong 5000 modems, as well as a $2,600 foldable tablet-phone called Mate X. Taiwan’s MediaTek is planning to supply chips for mid-range and premium phones for Chinese consumers, as well.