China could get 4G licences this year

Government looks set to accelerate LTE pace and step up support for commercial roll-outs from late 2013

The Chinese Ministry of Industry and IT (MIIT) looks set to accelerate the process of awarding 4G licences, which will be a relief to its operators as they rise to the challenge of burgeoning mobile data usage in the country. In particular, China Mobile has been building huge TD-LTE networks already, but these remain officially ‘trial’ services.

Now, China is likely to award the operating licences this year, reversing a previous stance that they should wait until 2015 or even later, to allow the three carriers to get full returns from their 3G investments. Mobile has been hostile to that view, since it has the weakest 3G technology – its TD-SCDMA platform lacks the global ecosystem and roaming of its rivals’ W-CDMA and CDMA2000 technologies.

There are many decisions to be made about the shape of Chinese 4G. In particular, it is unclear whether the 2.5GHz band will be allocated entirely on a TDD basis, which would push China Unicom and China Telecom to adopt unpaired systems like Mobile. The largest cellco is pushing for this outcome to enlarge the ecosystem around its chosen TD-LTE technology. But Mobile has also hinted it may move to dual-mode FDD/TDD networks in future too.

Miao Wei, the MIIT minister, told the Xinhua news agency that China needs to speed up network build-out and terminal procurement to support commercial 4G services, and that this will require increased financial and technical support from the government.

China Mobile has been operating TD-LTE trial networks since March 2011, and in February launched commercial services on a trial basis in two cities.

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