China’s 5G expansion adds fuel to 700 MHz fire

  • 700 MHz band an increasingly important part of the 5G airwaves mix
  • Low frequency band offers broader reach and indoor signals 
  • China Mobile and CBN betting big on 700 MHz rollout
  • Spanish auction imminent

As the 5G market starts to flesh out beyond the initial rush to claim high-speed mobile broadband bragging rights, operator strategies are maturing based on the core, (edge) cloud and spectrum assets they have at their disposal. And as 2021 progresses, so we’re seeing more 5G activity in the 700 MHz band, which enables operators to extend the reach of their next-gen mobile networks outdoors and better penetrate buildings with their 5G signals.

The auction for 700 MHz licenses in Spain is set to start any day, with Telefónica, Orange and Vodafone to participate in a process that has more favourable conditions than previously planned following a recent decision by the Spanish government to cut prices and soften the rollout demands.

And a few months ago, UK operators were crowing about the potential that their newly-acquired 700 MHz licenses will afford them in an increasingly competitive 5G services market, O2, Three and EE bagged spectrum in the auction that ended in April, while Telefónica Deutschland (O2 Germany) is talking about a service launch in the next few months

In the southern hemisphere, Australian operator TPG made some noise around its 5G Standalone 700 MHz network rollout last week, noting that the use of the band will enable it to reach 85% of the country’s population in the top six cities by the end of 2021. (See TPG Telecom takes its 700 MHz spectrum standalone.)

One of its main rivals, Optus, has also been talking up how it will make use of its 700 MHz capacity using dynamic spectrum sharing capabilities

But as ever, it’s China that offers the scale that can shape and make a market, albeit most often with local technology suppliers as the beneficiaries of the pumped-up ecosystem. Earlier this year, as part of its efforts to curb infrastructure rollout costs, China Mobile finalized a network investment collaboration deal with China Broadcasting Network (CBN), which was awarded the country’s fourth 5G license, for the 700 MHz band, late last year. The partners will jointly fund the construction of a 5G network to support 700 MHz band services and both have access to the infrastructure, which will be managed by China Mobile (for a fee): As part of the deal CBN will be able to use China Mobile’s 2.6 GHz network (for another fee), and the partners have agreed that as they will both be accessing and using both networks, that the “wireless networks of 700MHz and 2.6GHz shall adopt the same shared technical solutions.” 

Now China Mobile has issued a tender for the network equipment needed for the 700 MHz rollout and it’s a whopper: According to local telecom industry website CCTIME, the tender is for 480,397 base stations. China Mobile has also issued a tender for 1.74 million multi-band antennas that support 700 MHz as one of the bands.   

And China Mobile and CBN don’t want to hang around: They plan to have 400,000 sites installed this year and have everything up-and-running for commercial services within two years. 

This is good news mainly for Huawei and ZTE and could also provide some new business for Ericsson, if it doesn’t fall foul of some retaliation against Sweden’s decision to bar Chinese vendors from the Scandinavian country’s 5G network rollouts. 

It’s also a significant bost for China’s 5G sector in general, reckons the team at Strategy Analytics. “The 700MHz 5G network will be a significant boost to the 5G infrastructure market and will also be a catalyst for further 5G development in China. The total number of 5G base stations in China could reach 1.7 million by the end of 2021, according to an executive at China Telecom,” notes the research company in this announcement.

Phil Kendall, Executive Director at the Strategy Analytics Service Provider Group, adds: “Given the better propagation characteristics, this deployment schedule will give the 700 MHz network a significant coverage advantage over the existing mid-band 5G deployments in China. This will allow China Mobile and the CBN to push 5G into more remote communities, to deliver a better 5G indoor user experience, and to open up more lower-bandwidth 5G use cases which are dependent on extensive coverage for success.”

-       Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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