China Femtocell Update - August 2010

china-mobile-userWith the recent flurry of activity in Japan which now has all three major networks offering femtocells commercially, I thought it might be time to checkup on China and see what’s been happening there. There's also an upcoming femtocell conference in Beijing next month which makes this even more topical.

Quick recap on the Chinese Telecom Market Structure

China has three nationwide telcos:

  • China Telecom, formerly a fixed/landline operator who now also operate a CDMA network
  • China Unicom, formerly a mobile operator with both CDMA and GSM, who now operate GSM/UMTS and can also offer fixe/landline services.
  • China Mobile, still very much the largest single mobile operator in the world, with a huge GSM network. They have also heavily invested in the 3G TD-SCDMA technology – a Chinese sponsored variant of the 3G standard which has up to now been used in volume only in China.

Until last year, strict government regulations limited the use of Wi-Fi on mobile phone devices. In many cases this feature had to be turned off or disabled by the manufacturers before devices were allowed to be sold legally. The first Apple iPhones, launched by China Unicom, suffered from this problem. I understand this was intended to prevent users from making VoIP calls over Wi-Fi which would reduce revenues to the mobile network operators. Perhaps strangely, using Skype on a laptop/netbook via Wi-Fi was permitted.

Today there are several nationwide Wi-Fi networks provided by the major operators, and many smartphone users can take advantage of this in public areas.

Internet access is widely available and at high speed.

Mobile phone network coverage is generally very good indeed throughout most cities and many rural areas. As common with many other countries, there are areas of poor coverage in remote or geographically challenges areas. Planning restrictions for cell towers don’t seem to be as much of an issue as elsewhere.

China Unicom still on trial

Several news sites had reported that China Unicom are offering commercial service in some Northern Provinces (including ThinkFemtocell I have to confess). This is also one of the operators to have launched according to the Femto Forum.

My sources tell me otherwise - the trial is still ongoing.

China Mobile is believed to be trialling TD-SCDMA femtocells

This 3G technology variant, heavily sponsored and invested in by the Chinese mobile industry, has been slow to take off other than for use with USB data dongles. It seems that China Mobile has been conducting thorough technical and commercial tests of this type of femtocell and would be more than capable of bringing this to market quickly and in large volume should it choose to do so.

However, there are no public plans for a launch that we’ve heard of at this stage.

China Telecom trialing CDMA femtocells

Perhaps it could be argued that the CDMA network has the best 3G coverage now in China.  However, the more limited range of handsets compared to GSM and slower takeup meant it lost out to China Mobile in previous years. Under new management, femtocells could provide a means to compensate for any areas of spotty coverage and increase data rates when at home or in the office.

With several major operators in other countries having launched femtocells, including Sprint, Verizon and KDDI,the technology is proven. Whether China Telecom might choose to leap ahead and be one of the first to deploy 3G CDMA femtocells is unknown.

LTE

With so much excitement around LTE, the new 4G technology, you’d be forgiven for thinking that China might be one of the first to deploy it. As with 3G, the Chinese have heavily invested in a TDD mode (TD-LTE) which benefits from only needing one band of spectrum rather than a paired band (for uplink and downlink).

But having only recently launched 3G last year, it’s likely they will need to recoup their investments from that first before embarking on a major LTE project. I don’t see LTE femtocells being required in China for a few years yet.

Femtocell Primer now on sale in China!

One femtocell launch in China that can’t be left out relates to our book – it’s now available through our distributor for immediate local delivery.

FemtoChina.com is a popular site which provides femtocell news and analysis of the Chinese femtocell industry. I’m pleased to say that you can buy our latest book (Femtocell Primer 2nd Edition) through this website and it will be posted out to you from within China, saving dispatch time.

My thanks are also due to Calvin Wang of FemtoChina for contributing to and checking this article.

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