China Unicom may be smaller in size compared to the other state-owned telecoms operators, China Mobile and China Telecom, but that has not stopped the firm from aiming for a leadership role in the nation’s 5G endeavors.
Making its ambitions clear, China Unicom on Tuesday unveiled plans for an accelerated rollout of commercial 5G services, moving ahead of its rivals in that game.
At a partner conference in Shanghai, which was attended by chipmaker Qualcomm and several device makers, Unicom announced that it will launch a 5G network for commercial trial next month in seven cities across China.
As per the carrier’s 5G business and network plan, the next-generation mobile network will go live in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Xiong’an in May. The network, which will run on the mid-band 3.5GHz frequency band, will then expand to hot spot locations in 33 cities. The company will also build specific networks for various applications on its 5G network.
In related initiative, Unicom is partnering with several prominent overseas telecoms operators — including Spain’s Telefonica, Japan’s NTT, France’s Orange and the UK’s BT Group — and digital service providers to join the “5G International Cooperation Alliance” to explore a 5G roaming industry cooperation model and the development of 5G roaming industry chain.
To facilitate the commercial trial of its 5G network, Unicom has kicked off an event to invite its subscribers to join the trial. The users can get a 5G smartphone to enjoy the new mobile technology without changing their SIM card and phone number.
Unicom has partnered with 12 brands offering a total of 15 5G smartphones and 5G devices, including names such as OPPO, VIVO, Huawei, Xiaomi, ZTE and Nubia.
5G will enable faster data transmission and offer lower latency that will be vital for advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous driving. The advanced network is not just a story about people-to-people communications, it is also about industry solutions and machine-to-machine communications.
In a presentation to enterprise customers, Unicom declared that its 5G network will feature several new applications including 8K VR streaming, 5G cloud gaming, high-definition video streaming, smart home, smart city, remote medical services and Internet of Things.
As Unicom has been among the first entities to be brought under China’s mixed-ownership reform of state enterprises, the company’s key stakeholders from the internet and technology sector, a list that includes Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, can play a key role to support the telecom carrier’s 5G development. That should help Unicom explore new business opportunities.
Under the leadership of Wang Xiaochu, Unicom has been steadily transforming itself in the past few years and preparing for the 5G era. Thanks to those efforts, the company will become the first Chinese mobile operator to kick off 5G network commercial trial. Wang has resolved to boost Unicom’s position in the industry, using 5G as the battleground.
Unicom slipped to the third-rank last year in terms of total revenue and 4G mobile subscribers. China Telecom, which was a latecomer to mobile business, surpassed Unicom to emerge as the second largest 4G network player by users last year. Unicom failed to attract many more new subscribers than its rivals, even under the partnership with internet firms like Tencent and Alibaba.
Some observers attributed the weak performance to poor marketing campaigns. But more than that, it was the network quality that was the key issue for Unicom.
Figures showed that Unicom had only 980,000 4G base stations, while China Mobile had around 2.41 million base stations by the end of last year. While it can be argued that the base station number has no direct correlation with the business performance, the huge gap between the rivals would suggest that Unicom did not move aggressively on infrastructure to ensure network quality.
But now, the company is signaling that all this could change as it embarks on a 5G journey.
Aiming to push integration of 5G technology and applications and provide network support for China’s 5G development, Unicom seems determined to score over its rivals in the new battlefield.
But if it is to seize all the available opportunities, the group may need to be a little more aggressive in network rollout to enhance the coverage to serve more users, especially as 5G will feature machine-to-machine communications.
Also, network coverage should be extended to rural areas to tap millions of potential users in the countryside, and help authorities in monitoring the farm sector better.
For Unicom, the battle has just begun.
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