NS Tech

China to ramp up its 5G network construction following coronavirus shutdown

A man looks at his smartphone near an advertisement for 5G internet at the railway station in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province on December 3, 2019. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has announced it will be supporting telecom operators to ramp up standalone 5G network coverage and capacity following the coronavirus-induced slowdown. 

MIIT instructed telecommunication firms to expedite equipment procurement, survey design and engineering construction in order to help mitigate the impact of the epidemic. 

The country aims to speed up migration to 5G, increase network and data centre construction, and promote the development of 5G in the areas of medical health, industrial internet and car networking.

China Telecom, one of the major telecommunication operators in China, has completed about 75,000 operational 5G base stations so far. By the end of the year, it aims to boost this number to 300,000.

More than 20 provinces across the country have released instructions or action programmes for 5G since the country began to issue 5G commercial licenses in 2019.

Although Chinese state media framed the announcement as a response to coronavirus, rather than a new call to accelerate 5G, GlobalData analyst Malcolm Rogers sees it “as more of a reiteration of a statement of purpose that was set out before the COVID-19 outbreak.” He said: “Now that China seems to be in recovery phase from the outbreak, industry across all economic segments is beginning to kick into gear again.”

However, he added that the COVID-19 outbreak highlights the potential application for telemedicine, “one of the key use cases for 5G that the telecoms industry has been touting for a while”.  Because 5G enables high bandwidth and ultra-low latency communications, it means doctors can connect with a patient through a 4K resolution, 60fps frame rate over a mobile service – extremely important in more rural areas where fibre infrastructure can’t reach. “The industry has always seen the potential for 5G networks to support medical applications, but the recent outbreak has really brought this to front of mind,” says Rogers. 

China’s 5G network rollout has been recognised as one of President Xi Jinping’s national priorities. In November, China turned on its 5G networks ahead of schedule. But the impact of coronavirus put a dent in its scheduled progress for 2020. Government records indicated that tenders for six big 5G projects were postponed since 31 January, including an industrial internet project in Guangdong province, a hospital-related project in Jiangxi province, and a police-related project in Gansu province.

Two leading providers of fibre optic cables – crucial for the implementation of 5G – have headquarters and key production facilities in Wuhan city, the area most affected by the pandemic. 

But President Xi Jinping highlighted in early February that 5G investment might help mitigate the decline in consumer spending caused by the viral outbreak.