China Mobile doubled its 5G user base in March, adding 16.3 million next-generation subs, as it recorded flat earnings in the first quarter of 2020, with the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic slowing handset sales and ARPU continuing to fall.

The world’s largest operator’s net profit dipped 0.8 per cent year-on-year in the January to March period to CNY23.5 billion ($3.32 billion), with operating revenue falling 2 per cent to CNY181.3 billion. While service revenue rose 1.8 per cent to CNY168.9 billion, product sales declined 34.9 per cent to CNY12.4 billion.

In a statement, China Mobile chairman Yang Jie said the outbreak impacted overall society and the economy in the first quarter and the group’s business was no exception.

He noted the company took steps to ensure reliable communications, maintain service continuity and enhance prevention and control measures. It also accelerated its business transformation and upgrade as steps to control the spread increased demand for information services.

Despite restrictions on retail businesses last month, the operator more than doubled 5G subscribers in March to 31.7 million. Its total sub based fell by 4 million in Q1 to 946 million, but it added 4.1 million new users in March after shedding 8.1 million in the first two months of the year.

ARPU decreased 6.8 per cent year-on-year to CNY46.90, but the operator noted the rate of decline fell from the previous year.

Total voice usage fell 16.3 per cent year-on-year, which the company attributed to OTT substitution and the impact of the pandemic. SMS usage increased 45.4 per cent due to the rapid growth of corporate messaging.

Average monthly mobile data usage increased 46 per cent to 8.3GB.

Looking ahead, Yang said in the face of various challenges, including Covid-19, business transformation and higher 5G-related costs, the company will continue to develop new sources of revenue while taking measures to reduce costs and enhance efficiency.