China’s Telecom Shakeup And What It Means

Several days ago, a different kind of earthquake happened in China in the telecoms field. Unlike the Sichuan earthquake which took so many lives and caused so much damage, this shakeup was not unexpected. It’s ramifications will be large, if not huge, and it’s worth going into some depth to get a deeper understanding of how this change will affect the development of mobile usage of the Internet in China.

Before leaving the Sichuan earthquake as a subject, I would like to point you to this excellent slideshow by CIC Data (h/t to Tangos Chan) which shows how China’s grassroots social media has helped in the disaster rescue and recovery process.

China’s New Telecom Landscape

The main points of the new joint interagency government announcement by the MII (Ministry of Information Industry), NDRC (National Development and Reform Commission) and Ministry of Finance (MOF) are phrased as an opinion and encouragement. (Note: When you get two government ministries and one super-ministry “encouraging” you this way, you do what you are encouraged to do, even if you are China Mobile and have the largest single-country number of subscribers in the world. After all, this is China, not the US, where big corporations tell Congress and the executive through lobbyists and lawyers what they want and are willing to do, and then sell it to the American people through the media as “being in the best interests of the people”.)

The main points are:

  • China Telecom is “encouraged” to acquire the CDMA business of China Unicom
  • China Unicom and China Netcom are encouraged to merge
  • The basic telecom service of China Satellite should be merged into China Telecom
  • China Tietong (part of the railways infrastructure and the third fixed line operator after China Unicom and China Netcom) is to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of China Mobile

All six operators (China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, China Netcom, China Satellite and China Tietong) have been asked to separately submit their implementation plans to the relevant ministries where they will be encouraged (again) to reconcile their different plans and agree on a schedule. Once this is completed, the Chinese government will then announce the granting of the three 3G licenses and which operators they will go to.

Following the reorganization, there will be three companies left, which meshes perfectly with the number of 3G licenses to be granted by the government. There will be one license granted for each of the new 3G technologies: TD-SCDMA (China’s natively-developed standard), CDMA2000 and WCDMA. Current opinion is that China Mobile will get the TD-SCDMA license, with China Unicom and China Telecom getting the other two foreign technology licenses.


The immediate reaction on the HKSE, where China Mobile, China Unicom, China Netcom and China Telecom are listed was unfavorable to China Mobile, the giant in the mobile sector in China. Goldman Sachs issued a sell rating on China Mobile.

You can bet that the six companies will be burning the midnight oil to complete and submit their implementation plans so that they can get the 3G licenses as soon as possible, which should be sometime within the next 3-6 months. Most likely it will not happen before the Beijing Olympics, even though the network infrastructure is there, simply because there is a lot of training and testing to be done.

My Take

This change marks the end of the first stage of the rollout of mobile phone services in China. While China has the largest single-country number of mobile subscribers, most people use mobile overwhelmingly only for voice and SMS services. From a business standpoint, China’s telecom industry has been in a wait-and-see mode for the past two years.

This second generation, or next stage of mobile services will be about a renewed rollout and introduction of more data services, and the more important metric for the operators will be ARPU (average revenue per user) instead of number of subscribers. So please, let’s stop talking about number of subscribers, and let’s talk about ARPU instead from now on.

ARPU will be the real metric to measure the performance of the three operators. I say “It’s about time!”

This change opens crack and opportunities for investment and new players, and gives more choices to Chinese consumers. China Mobile, the industry leader in mobile services, has continued to expand the number of subscribers, having the world’s largest number of subscribers in one country, with more than 500M. China Unicom has been playing catchup because it started as a CDMA service provider (as opposed to China Mobile’s GSM) and although it also later entered the GSM field. The small independent mobile operators such as, Linktone and KongZhong have all languished because China Mobile was seen as the dominant player which wanted to completely dominate the platform and application-level services. While it would be a real challenge for those companies to claw their way back to health, venture capital and private equity firms can now look more favorably at the next generation of mobile services, which will no longer be as dependent on a single mobile provider, since there are now three choices available, and they will differentiate on the basis of how they cooperate with service providers and services they offer to Chinese consumers.

In order for Chinese startups to survive and prosper, they will increasingly differentiate themselves on their business and execution skills instead of just technology. Good management will be key.

It goes without saying that Apple’s iPhone will be the most high-profile beneficiary of the change, since it will have two other mobile operators to talk to besides just China Mobile. Instead of just having a loyal base of hacked iPhone users in China, Apple will have a chance to test its vision of the mobile Internet with Chinese users.

The major handset makers such as Nokia, Sony-Ericsson and Samsung will also want to test their application services among Chinese users, and will have greater chance of reaching them.

There are many opportunities in search and display advertising, and subscription-based services. Most of these opportunities are not infrastructure-related, but service- and tool-related. I will talk about some of these opportunities in the future.

While this is a short-term setback for China Mobile, it will ultimately help the company because instead of becoming a lazy monopolist offering bad services, it will have to compete on service. This will make the company more competitive when China starts planning seriously for 4G.

I give the plan an enthusiastic “thumbs-up”!

This is a good example of central planning working to help competitiveness, and in favor of consumers.

It would be nice if, ahem, other countries with large consumer markets, took a closer look at this move and how it helps competitiveness.

5 Responses to “China’s Telecom Shakeup And What It Means”

  1. Tangos says:

    The objective of this restructure is to encourage a more competitive mobile market, but I’m not as optimistic as Paul, China Unicom is much smaller compared with China Mobile. After restructure, China Mobile will continue to be a leading player in the market, the real challenge to China Mobile, I think, should be the TD-CDMA.

    Tangoss last blog post..Chinese Digital Music Service A8 To Go Public in HongKong

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  4. Jessie says:


    Great post, very informative. Have learned a lot from your site….

  5. […] an earlier article, I talked about my take on the telecom shakeup in China in May. Three months after, it looks more […]