Challenges and Progress in China’s Development of 5G and 6G

Image: Men at work on a 5G base station. Over the past two years, China has accelerated the construction of a national 5G network, building over 600,000 base stations in 2020 (Source: CGTN), and announcing plans to finish another 400,000 by the end of 2021.

On July 5, ten central government departments led by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) released the “5G Application ‘Set Sail’ Action Plan (2021-2023)” ([5G应用 ‘扬帆’ 行动计划 (2021-2023年)], 5G yingyong ‘yangfan’ xingdong jihua) to promote industrial and social applications of 5G+ “in order to implement the important instructions of [Chinese Communist Party (CCP)] General Secretary Xi Jinping on accelerating the development of 5G” (State Council, July 5). The Action Plan noted that while some 5G adoption indicators had improved—including a 200 percent annual growth rate of 5G users and a 35 percent penetration rate of 5G applications in industry—there was room for further growth in “key industries” such as media, transportation, agriculture, water conservation, energy, mining, smart city, smart education, smart health care and smart cultural tourism. The Plan called for China’s 5G network to achieve a 40 percent penetration rate of personal mobile phone users in the next few years and for the number of 5G users to exceed 560 million by 2023 (Xinhua, July 18).

Less than two weeks later, it was announced that the home-grown Chinese telecommunications equipment provider Huawei Technologies Company had won majorities in three contracts shared between China Mobile and China Broadcasting Network (CBN) to build 700-megahertz (MHz) 5G base stations in mostly rural areas. The contracts, worth an estimated 38.4 billion RMB ($6 billion), represented roughly 60 percent of a planned 480,297 new 5G base stations, 400,000 of which are scheduled to be finished this year. Media reports noted that Huawei’s winning bid demonstrated the Chinese state’s continuing loyalty to the telecom company, which has received considerable international backlash for its alleged ties to the PRC national security apparatus and been excluded from numerous foreign 5G networks as a result (South China Morning Post, July 19).

Rapidly Building Out a National 5G Network

Chinese researchers, industry analysts and policymakers have connected the rollout of national 5G networks to economic planners’ aims to upgrade the nation’s manufacturing base and promote a more technologically advanced economy. As a result, the state’s development of 5G has become closely tied to national issues of development and prestige. Applications of 5G technologies were also elevated in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (South China Morning Post, March 28, 2020; CGTN, July 9, 2020; Nikkei Asia, May 6, 2020). At the same time, there have been some reports that industry adoption of 5G solutions has been slower than hoped for, as well as growing concern about the elevated energy use of 5G base stations (according to one Huawei report, up to 3.5 times more energy than 4G infrastructure) (IOT OFweek, July 14; South China Morning Post, August 27, 2020)—at a time when the central leadership is also driving the country to reduce its energy consumption to meet upcoming carbon neutrality goals. The state’s failure to reform its spectrum monopolies has also precluded the development of more robust private networks, which may have also slowed down enterprises’ 5G adoption (Asia Times, June 26; Light Reading, June 23, 2020).

Researchers and policymakers have hung many of their hopes on the successful rollout and adoption of 5G, even though actual networking applications and solutions remain largely experimental. It was announced at the 20th China Internet Conference (中国互联网大会, Zhongguo hulianwang dahui) on July 13 that China had completed construction on 916,000 5G base stations, representing 70 percent of the total number of 5G base stations worldwide (Xinhua, July 14). According to MIIT figures, China also more than doubled its number of active 5G connections between December 31, 2020 and June 30, with this number representing about 80 percent of the world’s total 5G connections (Xinhua, July 18).

Industry media reported that China’s 5G development is expected to drive 1.2 trillion RMB ($ 185.7 billion) in network construction investment by 2025 (Yicai, May 17). Although this scale and speed is impressive, the national 5G build out has a way to go. Because of the technology’s comparatively limited signal coverage, industry analysts have roughly calculated that China’s 5G base station network will need to be roughly four to five times denser than its existing 4G network to achieve universal coverage (as of 2019, China had roughly 5.44 million 4G base stations) (OFweek, May 24).

Nevertheless, progress has been swift. Nikkei Asia reported that spending on 5G networks and other infrastructure by the three major Chinese telecom companies (China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom) dropped 25 percent to 137.65 billion RMB ($21.3 billion) in the first half of 2021, reflecting in part the success of “co-build, co-share” efforts to cut costs by jointly building and sharing 5G infrastructure between different companies. Although the joint sharing programs were able to streamline capital expenditures, a senior executive at China Telecom also noted that the global chip shortage had delayed the delivery of some network equipment, which affected 5G network construction. Despite these supply concerns, industry analysts have remained bullish that China’s telecommunications investment is at a peak (Nikkei Asia, August 19).

Simultaneous Progress on 6G

China’s telecommunications development strategy is based on the principle of “[simultaneously] use one generation [4G], build one generation [5G], and develop one generation [6G]” (使用一代, 建设一代, 研发一代, shiyong yi dai, jianshe yid ai, yanfa yi dai) to ensure continuous innovation and allow China to retain the cutting-edge in both next- and next-next generation telecommunications technologies (Cac.gov.cn, July 3, 2020). In early June, the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) IMT-2030 6G government-backed industry group released the nation’s first 6G white paper laying out plans to commercialized 6G by 2030 (Caict.ac.cn, June 2021; Global Times, June 7). IMT-2030 6G, comprising 37 different research bodies and industry representatives, was jointly launched in November 2019 by the PRC Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), MIIT, the China Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), among others, kickstarting a centralized push to drive China’s 6G research and development process (Xinhua, July 3, 2020).

Proponents of 6G—broadly defined to encompass higher frequency bands on the electromagnetic spectrum including millimeter wave, terahertz (THz) and visible light to provide higher capacity and lower latency communications (the latter perhaps as low as 1 microsecond)—have argued that if 5G technology represents the “interconnection of everything,” then 6G represents the possibility to realize the “intelligent connection of everything” (Cac.gov.cn, July 3, 2020).  Some experts have predicted that 6G will allow the creation of a next-generation “digital twin” (数字孪生, shuzi luansheng) world merging the physical and the virtual, roughly analogous to the concept of “extended reality” or XR (Yicai, June 6; Chinanews.com, March 12).

Per the June 2021 white paper, technological solutions related to 6G could also help solve major systemic challenges currently facing the Chinese state including income inequality; demographic issues and labor shortages; social governance and environmental sustainability (Economic Observer, June 6). Chinese analysts also frequently refer to 6G technology as having the potential to realize seamless “air-space-earth-sea integrated systems” (空天地海一体化, kong tian di hai yitihua) (The Paper, March 29)—with significant implications for increased digital surveillance, communications, and control capabilities.

In November 2020, China reported that it had launched the world’s first so-called 6G satellite, also known as the Tianyan (天雁) -05 (Xinhua, November 6, 2020), and Chinese military-industrial researchers have also been active in researching the possible security applications of terahertz (THz) technology in communications, radar, and other fields (China Brief, November 12, 2020). In April 2021, the State Council Intellectual Property Office released a “6G Communication Technology Patent Development Report” ([6G 同行技术专利发展状况报告], 6G Tongxing jishu zhuanli fazhan zhuangkuang baogao), which said that China had taken a global lead in filing 6G patents, representing 35 percent of the world’s total number (13,000 out of 38,000 patents) (C114 Communication Net, April 26). This claim has been criticized; one foreign analysis noted that—apart from the uncertainty of determining what constitutes a “6G patent”—only one of the top ten patent applicants is from China, with the rest being U.S., Korean, and Japanese companies. Additionally, Chinese patent filings are dominated by state-backed research institutions, which may be aggressively filing in order to boost their attractiveness to state funders (Light Reading, April 29). In other words, although Chinese sources have trumpeted their status as the world’s number one 6G patent filer, this number may not actually correlate to research quality or impact.

Despite the uncertainty over the quality of China’s prolific 6G research and development, some milestones are notable. Chinese state media recently reported the first successful connection between low-orbit broadband 6G satellites and 5G equipment on the earth’s surface by researchers at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (北京邮电大学, Beijing you dian daxue) (Communication World Network, August 17). Other media reports noted the successful launch of three more experimental communications satellites on August 24 as China aims to maintain its head start in 6G satellite technology, commenting, “The 5G competition is on the ground, and the 6G competition is in the sky. Whoever takes the lead in completing a communications satellite network in the 6G era will have the first-mover advantage in the marketplace and the right to be a leading voice for industry” (Sohu, August 30).

Conclusion

While applications of 5G and 6G telecommunications are still being developed, the Chinese state has prioritized both technologies as a critical factor for future economic development and national competition. Progress towards commercialization has largely been driven by state-backed actors rather than private companies, and policymakers also see achieving supremacy in these next-generation technologies as a means for improving China’s international standards-setting abilities and influence—much in the same way that the United States’ first-mover advantage in internet technologies helped to buttress its position as a global superpower in recent decades. As China entrenches its global dominance in 5G and seeks to develop a similar “generational lead” in 6G, it is likely to leverage its knowledge and know-how for lucrative export to other countries using investment and cooperation vehicles such as the Digital Silk Road. Amid growing strategic competition with the U.S., Chinese industry experts have argued that 6G could help to overcome “bottleneck technologies” which have delayed the 5G buildout (i.e., export controls on Huawei equipment), aiding China to develop a more self-sufficient and resilient economy (Ecns.cn, June 7).

Elizabeth Chen is the editor of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, feel free to reach out to her at: [email protected].