China's economy started taking off under the economic reform championed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, but the country's backward telecom infrastructure was unable to meet the needs of indigenous and foreign enterprises. In 1988, the State Council mapped out a direction for structural reform of the telecom industry. China's telecom industry used to be controlled by the government and monopolized by a single service provider, but in 1994, under the support of various ministries, China Unicom came into being, becoming the country's second nationwide enterprise for basic and value-added telecom services and breaking China Telecom's long-standing monopoly of the market. Since then, a few more waves of restructuring have taken place, creating a telecom market that now sees a three-horse race between China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom.
During the restructuring, China's telecom market has also entered the 3G era. The China government has issued 3G licenses to the three major telecom carriers, each of which embraces a different 3G standard. China Mobile, the largest mobile-phone operator of the country, was granted a 3G license featuring indigenous TD-SCDMA technology; China Telecom, a newcomer to the mobile-phone service, obtained a license for CDMA2000 EVDO; and China Unicom gained a license for WCDMA.
Looking at the overall development of 3G services in China since their launch, 2009 could be described as a period of infrastructure construction. Not only were base stations being deployed as service provision was rolled out to customers, but product supply chains for the TD-SCDMA, CDMA and WCDMA standards were also all far from robust; the upshot of this was that even if consumers were tempted to try out 3G services, they were faced with an annoyingly restrictive choice of handset terminals. Moreover, despite the fact that 3G services in China had been in planning for many years before their eventual launch, applied services capable of actually utilizing the advantages of 3G involved a considerable trade off in other respects for all three carriers during this initial period. Consequently, while the carriers made bold claims in 2009 about drawing in 30 million new 3G users during their first year of operation, this target was revised downward by the middle of the year, and the final number of 3G users by the end of 2009 was just 10.2 million.
However, as network deployment nears completion, the range of terminals increases and carriers begin to offer tariff plan support, DIGITIMES Research predicts that the number of 3G users in China will reach 44.8 million by the end of 2010, a threefold increase on the 2009 figure. With regard to the individual carriers, China Mobile is best placed to take the lion's share of China's 3G user base, as it has managed to obtain government policy support and is also in good shape in operational terms, with a range of relatively cheap tariff plans ready for launch.
DIGITIMES Research's latest Special Report, "China 3G telecoms, suppliers and market," traces the development of the telecom sector in the world's most populous country, and offers an in-depth analysis of the prospects of the 3G market.