China reportedly is preparing to issue FDD-LTE network licences as early as next month, a development that would help put China Telecom and China Unicom on more equal footing with 4G leader China Mobile.
C114.net reported today that the relevant government departments were getting ready to issue FDD-LTE licences that would cover the entire country in December, if “everything goes right”.
Mobile World Live’s sources have confirmed the accuracy of C114.net’s report.
Currently China Telecom and Unicom have approval to operate so-called hybrid TDD-FDD LTE network trials in 40 cities. Two weeks ago they reportedly applied for a third batch of hybrid 4G trials that would extend coverage to a total of 237 cities.
The first 4G licences approved by the government last December were for TD-LTE (using unpaired spectrum). This effectively gave China Mobile an advantage over its rivals, which preferred the more globally popular FDD-LTE (paired spectrum) version of 4G technology.
The issuance of full FDD-LTE licences means the number 2 and 3 players can move aggressively to build out their 4G networks and push to gain ground on the market leader. At the end of September, Unicom had 2.7 million 4G connections and Telecom had 1.3 million, while China Mobile had 41 million, according to GSMA Intelligence.
China Mobile is less interested in an FDD-LTE licence since its 3G network is based on TD-SCDMA, which has simplified its migration to TD-LTE.
The regulator recently sent deployment requirements to Telecom and Unicom, which requested they finish building or upgrading their FDD-LTE base stations by the end of this month, C114.net said, noting the move from WCDMA (3G) to FDD-LTE was a software upgrade.
The report said the hybrid trials had allowed the two operators to significantly expand their 4G coverage and start pushing the services to customers and then apply separately for commercial FDD-LTE licences.
Unicom and Telecom have said they will use FDD-LTE for wide-area coverage and use TD-LTE to add capacity in urban hotspots. Although they are late to join the rush to 4G, analysts says they should be able to catch up quickly and at a lower cost than China Mobile because they already have wide 3G coverage and the base stations are software upgradable.
China Mobile has invested an estimated CNY240 billion ($39 billion) in 4G, with 500,000 4G base stations at the end of September and an expected 700,000 by the end of the year. Only about 15 per cent of the base stations, however, were upgraded via software. Industry sources also point out that because the network was built out so fast, the operator needs more time to optimise it.