The China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) announced 4G networks accounted for half of the 5.9 million base stations deployed across the country at end-June.

With 2.99 million 4G base stations in the mainland, China’s big three mobile operators certainly account for the lion’s share of the global 4G total – more than 40 per cent according to some analysts.

But determining a precise percentage proved to be a challenge for Mobile World Live (MWL).

Phil Marshall, chief research officer at Tolaga Research, estimates the global number of base stations at 6.5 million sites, while Chinese equipment vendor Huawei puts the number at 7 million.

Obviously China hasn’t deployed nearly all of the world’s base stations.

Sites vs sectors
The confusion arises from how you define base station.

It seems CAICT, and China’s operators, are counting “logical” sites or sectors, while others use the more narrow definition by including only physical sites. A physical site might house three to four logical sectors, and each can be counted as a “base station”.

For example, a China Unicom base station supports GSM900, GSM1800, WCDMA2100 and LTE. Most of the equipment is deployed in the same room at one physical site, but there are four bands, so there are four logical sites, a Huawei representative said.

“We estimate 7 million physical base stations worldwide, but the number of logical sites would be considerably higher,” he said.

For the record, the number of 4G base stations China’s operators reported at end-June was significantly higher than CAICT’s total. China Mobile had 1.65 million, China Telecom 1.05 million and China Unicom 770,000, for a grand total of at 3.47 million. China Mobile plans to add another 120,000 4G base stations in H2, while China Telecom said it will deploy another 110,000 by year-end.

Marshall told MWL: “Given that China Tower has about 1 million towers, I cannot imagine how China could have more than 1.5 million 4G sites. This is further supported by the fact that there are about 885 million 4G subs in China. We normally work on a ratio of between 500 and 1,500 subscribers per unique site depending on market conditions.”

By either measure, China is the global leader by a long shot, with no country having anywhere close to half the number of 4G sites or sectors.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.