China Boosts 5G Development by Accelerating Penetration into Rural Areas

The official website of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced that MIIT has granted permission to China Telecom to repurpose the 800MHz frequency band, currently used for 2G/3G/4G systems, for 5G public mobile communication networks.

For China Telecom, this is a significant advantage that facilitates the deployment of 5G networks in rural and remote areas. With this move, all three major telecom operators have made progress in acquiring low-frequency 5G spectrum resources. China Unicom was granted permission last year to repurpose the 900MHz frequency band for 5G, while China Mobile partnered with China Broadcasting Network to drive the development of 700MHz 5G, which will accelerate the expansion of 5G coverage in rural regions.

China Rural Telco Use Cases

Reallocating Spectrum Resources

Spectrum resources are precious and scarce, especially in the lower frequency bands. For China Telecom, the low-frequency 800MHz spectrum has always been a core resource, with its broad signal coverage and strong penetration capabilities. It was pivotal in the rapid growth of China Telecom's 3G business in its early stages. After entering the 4G era, China Telecom constructed its 4G network in the 1.8GHz frequency band. In 2016, to better facilitate China's 4G development, MIIT authorized China Telecom to use the 800MHz and 2100MHz frequency bands for LTE deployment.

Based on experiments conducted by China Telecom in certain regions at that time, the coverage distance of LTE in the 800MHz band was approximately twice that of the 1.8GHz band, and its penetration capabilities were equivalent to passing through two more walls. For China Telecom, this helped reduce network construction investment and expedited the expansion of 4G coverage.

In the era of 5G, both China Telecom and China Unicom secured 100MHz of spectrum resources in the global mainstream 5G frequency band, the 3.5GHz band. Meanwhile, China Mobile obtained 260MHz of bandwidth resources in the 2.6GHz and 4.9GHz bands. After the allocation of 5G spectrum resources, MIIT approved China Telecom and China Unicom's use of the more cost-effective 2.1GHz frequency band for 5G coverage in 2021, resulting in both operators adopting a "3.5G+2.1G" dual-frequency 5G strategy.

China Mobile Subscriptions by Generation

In November 2022, MIIT permitted China Unicom to repurpose the 900MHz frequency band used for 2G/3G/4G systems for 5G deployment, drawing high attention from the industry. China Mobile, on the other hand, collaborated with China Broadcasting Network to be among the earliest to access low-frequency 5G spectrum, establishing a shared 700MHz 5G network. According to data disclosed in China Mobile's performance report for the first half of 2023, by the end of June this year, they had established 578,000 700MHz 5G base stations in collaboration with China Broadcasting Network.

In this context, MIIT's approval for China Telecom to repurpose the 800MHz frequency band for 5G deployment is a natural progression.

According to public information, MIIT has already cumulatively allocated 1,109MHz of wireless radio frequency resources to China Telecom and other four major basic telecommunications operators, with 73% of the spectrum resources available for 5G, effectively ensuring the capacity and signal coverage requirements of 5G communication. China's mid- to low-frequency 5G frequency resources are at the forefront globally.

Accelerating the Drive to Bring 5G to Rural Areas

The 800MHz frequency band boasts characteristics such as low propagation loss, wide coverage range, strong penetration capabilities, and low network deployment costs, making it highly suitable for public mobile communication network coverage in rural and remote areas. MIIT explicitly stated that permitting China Telecom to utilize the 800MHz frequency band for 5G services further strengthens the supply of high-quality 5G spectrum resources in frequencies below 1GHz, facilitating the provision of high-quality 5G services to communities in towns, villages, and remote areas.

As of the end of June this year, China had a cumulative total of 2.9 million 5G base stations, covering urban areas in all prefecture-level cities and county-level cities. The extension of 5G coverage to towns and rural areas has become a focal point in China's 5G development in the foreseeable future. In light of this, relevant authorities have employed a comprehensive strategy, including permitting the repurposing of low-frequency high-quality spectrum resources like 800MHz and 900MHz, as well as enabling 5G network interconnection and roaming.

On World Telecommunication and Information Society Day on May 17th this year, China Telecom, China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Broadcasting Network jointly announced the launch of the world's first trial commercial use of cross-network 5G roaming in Xinjiang, further promoting open sharing of 5G networks, reducing redundant network construction, and narrowing the urban-rural gap in 5G development. Moreover, the trial commercial use in Xinjiang is just the beginning; more regions, including Inner Mongolia, will also be selected for piloting cross-network 5G roaming.

From another perspective, with the repurposing of the 800MHz and 900MHz frequencies for 5G, the countdown for the shutdown of 2G/3G networks in China has begun.

In 2019, officials from MIIT stated, "The commercialization of 5G is already in progress, and the conditions for the shutdown of 2G and 3G mobile communication networks in China have gradually matured." This was the official announcement regarding the shutdown of 2G and 3G networks.

In November 2021, the "14th Five-Year Plan for the Development of the Information and Communication Industry" issued by MIIT clearly stated the need to "accelerate the shutdown of 2G and 3G networks and coordinate the synchronous development of 4G and 5G networks," making the shutdown of 2G and 3G networks a key focus of network infrastructure development during the 14th Five-Year Plan period.

Currently, the telecom operators are actively working on reducing the frequency and phasing out 2G/3G networks.

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