Chinese mobile operators are making hefty investments as they push on with building the 5G network despite not having fully reaped returns on 4G, said a China Telecom executive yesterday.
Mr David Dai, a vice-president at China's third-largest 4G mobile firm, said the company has expanded its pilot programme from 17 cities to 40 as it regards the 5G network as a strategic asset for industry and the nation.
China handed out commercial 5G licences to its three big state-owned telcos and a major TV network on Thursday, accelerating the roll-out of this high-speed, low-latency network.
This all-out push comes as the United States is blacklisting Huawei, a key Chinese 5G network equipment provider.
China and the US are racing to lead the world in deploying 5G, which promises to bring frontier applications such as self-driving cars to reality.
Observers have said the US ban on Huawei could be a major setback for China in its 5G ambitions.
Despite that, Mr Dai told a panel discussion at the FutureChina Global Forum yesterday that work on building the 5G network in China is moving fast, with 790,000 base stations slated to be erected by the three telcos this year.
The country aims to have three million 5G base stations within three years, which is about half of all the numbers globally, he said.
"We are to get the entire network built before there are any commercial applications of the technology," he added.
Fellow panellist Nikhil Batra, research director at technology consultancy IDC Asia Pacific, said Australia could have been too quick to ban Huawei from participating in its 5G roll-out.
Mr Batra, who is based in Australia, noted that many European countries and Asian carriers are still open to using Huawei as part of their 5G ecosystem. The latest is MTS, Russia's largest mobile carrier.
"Networks are the lifeline of modern society and the governments are taking a very conservative view," he told an audience of business people, scholars and policymakers.
They are treating mobile networks as a critical infrastructure, like the electricity grid and water supply, he added.
Mr Batra noted that Australia's Huawei ban has effectively crippled plans by one of its three major telcos from joining the 5G roll-out.
Fewer players invariably hurts innovation, he said. "This slows down the development of 5G in the country and across the entire region," he added.
When asked what would be the best-and worst-case scenario in China's 5G development over the next two years, panellist Caroline Gabriel, an analyst from consultancy Analysys Mason, said the best case would be for the barriers to go away, allowing China to fully participate in the global industry again.
As for the worst-case scenario, she said: "5G will be rolled out, but operators will not find a strong business case in the first few years and will get discouraged by that."