Confirming data plan price leaks by China Mobile and its rivals earlier this week, China’s top three cellular carriers have officially commenced commercial 5G data services today, with aggressively priced data plans. Each of the carriers has launched in a strong initial collection of cities, with a promise to cover as many as 50 locations by year’s end.
As of today, actual 5G service appears to be available across many of China’s major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, and Shenzhen, though there are differences between the carriers. Press reports suggested that China Unicom was commencing 5G service in 14 cities, but the carrier itself insinuates that it’s covering at least 50, with peak initial data rates of 300Mbps. By contrast, China Mobile is currently offering live 5G maps for 30 cities, with data rates ranging from 300Mbps to 1Gbps, and plans to blanket 50 cities in 2019.
Like several other countries, China accelerated its 5G launch from an original 2020 date up to 2019, but faced significant challenges in actually deploying enough base stations to cover its numerous cities and gigantic landmass. Carriers began offering limited services in some cities earlier this year. As of today, the carriers reportedly have deployed over 85,000 5G base stations, with plans to have over 130,000 units operational heading into 2020.
While all three carriers are run by the Chinese government, they compete with each other for customers, differentiating their offerings by locality and various dimensions of service quality. China Mobile is operating one nationwide 5G network, while China Telecom and China Unicom are sharing another in a bid to make better use of their resources. The carriers are primarily using sub-6GHz radio technology, rather than the faster but shorter-distance millimeter wave hardware favored initially by several U.S. carriers.
Demand from Chinese customers for 5G is expected to be very high. The carriers claimed over 10 million pre-registrations for service prior to the announcement of monthly data plan prices, which turned out to be far more aggressive than 5G in other countries. Basic 5G plans start at only $18 per month, and will be accessible via a wide range of early 5G devices from Chinese manufacturers including Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, and Oppo, some at 4G device-like prices. Huawei and ZTE are also supplying networking gear to support the Chinese launch, despite having been blocked from offering 5G base stations in the United States.