MWC Shanghai opened with the usual flares, beats and robotic dancers, but as always with China it’s the eye watering numbers that stick in the memory. At a time when GSMA is reporting that in June 2017 the mobile industry signed up its 5 billionth unique subscriber, it’s sobering to note that a fifth of those subscribers reside in China and more than half are in the Asia Pacific region.
While the booths of all the major vendors are cluttered with semi-connected cars, drones, VR and AI demos, all the talk around the show is about the importance of operators developing new business models and expanding the mobile ecosystem to draw in new players. At the show, GSMA launched a new report that suggests that China’s three operators are likely to account for almost 40 per cent of the predicted 1.1 billion 5G global connections in 2025. And while most of the visual evidence around the booths is focused on standalone 5G infrastructure, the GSMA’s more sober analysis suggests that the more likely scenario is that ‘non-standalone 5G networks would run on existing infrastructure supplemented by targeted small cell deployments in areas of high density, allowing 4G and 5G services to run in parallel’.
In fact, while just a few months back in Barcelona MWC was all about undiluted 5G everywhere for everything, here in Shanghai the talk is more about maximizing existing assets on the path to 5G. GlobalData’s Peter Jarich echoes SCF’s evolutionary focus when he suggests that ‘…we will need to talk about 5G within the context of today’s LTE networks and technologies – how they can be evolved to support 5G-like demands in the near to medium term’.
In pursuit of new revenue streams, IoT seems less wishful thinking in China than elsewhere. Close to home Shen Hongbo, general manager of Shanghai Unicom, said in his keynote that while in his market there is currently a bottleneck of subscriber growth, he is looking to IoT revenues to ramp up business, along with content-related operations. Shanghai Unicom’s city-wide NB-IoT network went live 5 May.
At the same time, there is much talk about the ‘rural opportunity’, alongside the moral imperative to connect the unconnected. GSMA Director General Mats Granryd’s opening keynote concluded with a strong focus on the responsibility the industry has in supporting the UN’s Global Sustainable Development goals. In particular, Granryd emphasized the importance of developing service delivery to under-served markets like those in sub-Saharan Africa and India, which is expected to account for around 30 per cent of new subscribers worldwide by the end of the decade. Granryd said that, ‘Led by India and China, Asia’s mobile industry will be the main engine of global subscriber growth for the remainder of the decade.’
And, given the nature of these markets, small cells will clearly have a significant role to play in delivering cost effective connectivity to serve a predicted half a billion new customers across the region by 2020.