Xi Guohua, chairman of China Mobile Ltd, speaks at the GSMA Mobile Asia Expo in Shanghai on Wednesday. China Mobile is the world's biggest telecom operator by subscribers. [Photo/China Daily]
Lack of fourth-generation devices may hamper operator's ambition
The rollout of China's homegrown fourth-generation wireless networks will take off and expand at a rapid pace if mature 4G terminals are ready, according to Xi Guohua, chairman of China Mobile Ltd.
Xi, speaking at the GSMA Mobile Asia Expo in Shanghai on Wednesday, said the development of China's TD-LTE 4G technology is proceeding smoothly both at home and abroad.
China Mobile is conducting its Phase 2 scale-trial in 10 cities and aims to construct more than 20,000 base stations through new builds and upgrades this year, Xi said.
The company revealed in March that it hoped to have a total of more than 200,000 TD-LTE base stations by 2013.
"China Mobile has the ability to build as many 4G base stations as it wants in a short period of time," said Xi, a former vice-minister of industry and information technology, who succeeded Wang Jianzhou in March to become China Mobile's chairman.
The target of building 200,000 TD-LTE base stations is realizable, since the company can directly upgrade its 3G stations to advanced 4G ones. According to China Mobile's annual report, the number of 3G TD-SCDMA base stations reached around 220,000 last year.
However, the lack of TD-LTE devices could hamper the company's 4G rollout, Xi continued.
Though a dozen mobile phone manufacturers have expressed interest in developing TD-LTE handsets, a mature device has yet to emerge, said Cao Shumin, president of the China Academy of Telecommunication Research of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
"Several TD-LTE handsets are being tested, but their capabilities do not meet the standards for everyday use," Cao said.
The other LTE 4G technology, FDD-LTE, has around 64 smartphone models.
China Mobile has aggressively promoted TD-LTE to become a truly global telecommunication standard and wants to prevent it from meeting the same fate as its predecessor TD-SCDMA, which failed to achieve its goal of going global.
TD-SCDMA had fewer compatible chipsets and terminals compared with other popular 3G standards. For example, Apple Inc's iPhone cannot support the technology.
"China Mobile's hope lies in TD-LTE. The dawn is drawing near, and we have almost passed the dark night," Xi told China Daily.
Without its experience in TD-SCDMA construction, China Mobile could not have achieved such rapid development in TD-LTE technology, Xi said.
It will take some time before TD-LTE handsets really become mature, but China Mobile could use the time to fully test its TD-LTE network, he added.
China Mobile started building the world's largest TD-LTE trial network in the Chinese mainland in January 2011, when the Phase 1 scale-trial began. Among the 10 pilot cities, Hangzhou, Shenzhen and Guangzhou will conduct in-depth testing and offer pre-commercial 4G services to the public.
The company realized two-way roaming between the FDD-LTE network in Hong Kong and the TD-LTE network in Hangzhou on Monday.
The central government has also showed strong support for accelerating the development of TD-LTE.
Zhang Xiaoqing, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, said at the expo that the central government fully supports TD-LTE and an "important window has opened for China's development of TD-LTE technology".
Shi Lirong, president of ZTE Corp, the world's fifth-largest telecom gear maker and fourth-largest mobile phone manufacturer, said the company would introduce its first TD-LTE smartphone by the end of this year.
In contrast to domestic phone vendors, some international mobile phone makers remain hesitant and tend to have a wait-and-see attitude.
Magnus Ahlqvist, president of Sony China, told China Daily that the company may wait after China Mobile receives its 4G commercial license. Sony had previously revealed that it was developing TD-LTE phone models at its Beijing research center.
Eight telecom carriers across the world have so far deployed nine TD-LTE commercial networks. As announced in the recent GTI operator's action plan, 500,000 TD-LTE base stations are planned to be deployed globally by 2014 with more than 100 terminal models covering more than 2 billion people.
Xi said it is hard to predict when Apple Inc's iPhone device could finally be used on China Mobile's networks, but Apple and China Mobile have frequent communication.
"Apple's business in China will be incomplete if it does not cooperate with China Mobile," said Xi.
China Mobile had 677 million mobile phone subscribers by May, with 64.3 million 3G service subscribers, according to the company's latest figures.
The biggest obstacle to launching TD version iPhones is related to technical issues, because Apple has a demanding standard regarding chipsets, but there is no mature and capable chipset to support the device, he added.
"Maybe you should ask Qualcomm when the TD version iPhone will come out, instead of turning to us or Apple," Xi said.
With the sharp rise in data traffic on networks and growing numbers of people surfing the Web on mobile phones, China Mobile will build a smart pipe, open platforms, featured businesses and an integrated interface to establish a leading position in the mobile Internet, Xi said.
Reports have circulated that China Mobile would get a fixed-line network license from Chinese regulators to complement its wireless business. Xi said it was up to the ministry to decide whether China Mobile should get the permit.
But China Mobile will not enter fixed-line networks on a large scale, or start any price wars, Xi said. "If we get the license, we will do business selectively. China Mobile is a listed company, and we will invest considering returns."