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Telecommunications in China
CHINA TELECOMMUNICATIONS PANORAMA
Engineering School of Bilbao – Bilbao (Spain)
This paper gives an overview on the telecom industry in China including
Hong Kong, the British ex-colony.
China became in 2002 the world’s single largest telecom market.
Understanding the complex and multifaceted internal mechanisms of the
fast-changing and extremely competitive Chinese telecom scenario is essential
for a foreign investor to succeed.
The former public monopoly has given way to an initial state-run
competition: China Telecom and China Netcom in the fixed-line business, China
Mobile and China Unicom in the mobile sector, as well as two minor
players, China Satcom and China Railcom.
As a result of China’s entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in
2001, a new regulatory regime is being established and foreign operators
are gradually allowed to access the market.
After the last explosive-growth years, the main market trend is the
stabilization of the growth rate.
Key words: China, telecom market, operator, regulator
The Chinese telecommunication sector’s growth rate was about 20%
between 1997 and 2002. This is the double of China’s GDP (Gross Domestic
Product) rate  and is the strongest and fastest growth in world in this
line of industry .
China fixed-line and mobile operators have invested an average of 25
billion American dollars  on network infrastructure in the last years,
more than all western European carriers together . As a result, with
1.3 billion citizens, China owns the world’s largest fixed-line and
mobile network in terms of both network capacity and number of subscribers
Only one out of ten Chinese citizens had a phone five years ago. Today
more than one out of three have a fixed telephone subscription and more
than 1.25 million cellular subscribers sign up in China every week. In
five years, there will be more than 950 million fixed and mobile
subscriptions, three times more than the entire population of the United
States (US) .
China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on December
11th 2001 resulted in the gradual opening of the telecom services market
to foreign companies. Besides, Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Olympic
Games will create great business opportunities for both Chinese and
foreign companies .
2. Historical Overview
Before 1994, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MTP)
provided telecom services through its operational arm, China Telecom.
Pressured by other ministries and dissenting customers, the Chinese government
officially started the telecom industry reforms in 1994 by introducing
a new competitor: China Unicom. However China Unicom could hardly
compete with the giant China Telecom .
In 1998, due to a ministerial reorganization, the MTP was replaced by
the new Ministry of Information Industry (MII). The MII took two large
scale reshuffling actions targeting the inefficient state-monopoly. In
1999 the first restructuring split China Telecom’s business into thee
parts (fixed-line, mobile and satellite). China Mobile and China Satcom
were created to run, respectively, the mobile and satellite sectors but
China Telecom continued to be a monopoly of fixed-line services. The
second restructuring in 2002 split China Telecom geographically into
North and South: China Telecom - North kept 30% of the network resources
and formed China Netcom (CNC) and 70 % of the resources were retained by
China Telecom - South or simply the new China Telecom .
These resources consisted of a 2.200.000 km. long  nation-wide
optical network, based on ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), SDH (Synchronous
Digital Hierarchy) and DWDM (Dense Wavelength Division Multiplex)
technologies,  and several submarine cables, in particular with the US,
Japan, Germany and Russia.
Parallel to this double fission, the telecommunications division of the
Ministry of Railways (MOR) established a new actor in 2000: China
To sum up, in the last decade the Chinese telecom industry has changed
from a state-run monopolistic structure to state-run “oligopolistic”
3. Regulatory Environment
The MII is responsible, among other duties, for elaborating
regulations, allocating resources, granting licenses, supervising the competition,
promoting Research & Development (R&D) and service quality as well as
of developing tariff rates  . The MII has built up a nation-wide
regulatory system composed of Provincial Telecommunications
Administrations (PTA) with regulatory functions within their respective provinces.
A number of other significant institutions also influence China’s
telecom picture such as the State Development and Reform Commission (SDRC)
Following its WTO accession, China is accelerating the establishment of
a legal framework for the telecom industry. This framework includes
adopting a western-style Telecommunication Law and setting up an
independent regulatory and arbitration body to deal with the telecom operators
. None of these objectives have been yet truly accomplished:
On the one hand, Telecommunication regulations are still in an infant
state. The Telecommunication Law is still expected to appear although
the government promulgated the People’s Republic of China (PRC)
Telecommunications Regulations in 2000 and the Regulations on Foreign Investment
in Telecom Enterprises (See next section) in 2001.
On the other hand, given the close relation between the MII and the
state-owned Chinese telecom companies, the MII is far from being a truly
independent telecom regulator. As an example, most senior executives of
the Chinese telecom companies have links to the MII, the Government or
4. Foreign Participation
Prior to its WTO accession, China’s policy protected the national
emerging telecom industry  since it was and is a national priority
sector. Only foreign equipment vendors were allowed to invest in China .
Authorization for the investments was conditioned on technology transfer
. International telecom carriers were banned from accessing the
As part of the WTO commitments, the Chinese government is opening
gradually the carriers market to foreign investors. There are some
geographical limits to this opening but they will be progressively relaxed. In
2005 foreign investors will be allowed for form Joint Ventures,
investing up to 50% in Internet services in the whole country, up to 49% in the
mobile sector in 17 major Chinese cities and up to 25% in fixed-line
basic services in Beijing, Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou) . Finding a
Chinese partner to form a Joint Venture with, preferably a major
carrier is mandatory for a foreign company wishing to access the Chinese
Foreign investments come, in order of importance, from the US, Canada,
Sweden, Finland, Germany, France, Japan and South Korea . Main
companies from these countries already have one or more Joint Ventures.
Notice that many of them result in “divorce”.
5. Market Overview
In the first quarter 2004, China had 285 million fixed-line subscribers
(penetration rate 20 %) and 296 million mobile customers (21 %) 
. Two comments are indispensable: On the one hand, service revenue
grows much slower than the subscribers number . On the other hand, China
is a land of incredible contrasts. Although low average penetration
rates clearly allow further growth, rates in Beijing, Shanghai, Canton or
Shenzhen, are already similar to those in Western Europe or North
Chinese Telecom operators focus their effort on voice. Revenues from
data only account 5% . New technologies are being deployed to provide
differential services. These technologies include ADSL (Asynchronous
Digital Subscriber Line), WLAN (Wireless Local Area Networks), IP
(Internet Protocol) telephony and services associated with mobile
communications such as SMS / MMS (Short / Multimedia Messaging Service), ring tone
download etc. Lacking the know-how in developing new services, Chinese
operators are often cautious in purchasing cutting-edge technologies
Mobile communication, especially GSM (Global System for Mobile) is the
most profitable sub sector and reports 46% of all total revenues .
Concerning the Third Generation (3G), three technologies are relevant.
The American system CDMA2000 (Code Division Multiplex Access) is ahead
of game, the European W- CDMA (Wideband CDMA) still needs two years to
mature and the home-grown TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous CDMA) is
behind due to equipment problems (principally handsets) .
Halfway between mobile and fixed, “Xiaolingtong” is a limited mobility
service based on PAS / PHS (Personal Access System / Personal Handy
Phone System) technology. It consists of a wireless local loop that
provides access to the fixed-line network. With over 50 million users, PAS /
PHS competes in big cities head to head with traditional mobile
services since prices are typically four times cheaper .
6. Telecom Operators
Telecom operators are exclusively Chinese: two fixed-line operators
with nation-wide licenses - China Telecom and China Netcom -, two mobile
carriers - China Mobile (GSM) and China Unicom (GSM and CDMA)- as well
as two minor players - China Satcom and China Railcom - . The State
has control and majority ownership of all of them. Besides, most of them
are financed in Hong Kong (HK).
China Telecom, Netcom, Mobile have been pressuring the government for
years to get 3G licenses. They are very likely to succeed but there is
no time limit set   (maybe in 2005 or 2006).
China Telecom operates mainly in the wealthy Southern provinces
(including Shanghai and Canton) in addition to the less prosperous West. It
runs domestic and international fixed-line networks and provides
fixed-line voice, data, video, multimedia and information services. It
compensates the lack of a mobile license by deploying PAS / PHS very
successfully. A second focus point is broadband based on Ethernet and ADSL .
China Telecom is listed in HK and New York (NY) stock exchanges.
China Netcom operates essentially in the Northern provinces (including
Beijing) but has a straightforward strategy to enter China Telecom’s
southern territory. China Netcom is catching up quickly to compete
against China Telecom because of its strength in broadband, WLAN, IP
telephony  and, naturally, PAS / PHS. It is not yet listed.
China Mobile not only operates basic GSM services but also value-added
services such as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) data transfer, IP
telephony and multimedia. It ranks the first in the world in terms of
network scale and customers base . It is listed in HK and NY stock
China Unicom is to date the only licensed full telecom service provider
in China . Its services include fixed-line, mobile, IP telephony,
data and internet. Furthermore, China Unicom is the third largest mobile
operator in the world and the only one in China operating a CDMA
network . It is concentrating its efforts on CDMA and little investment is
expected in GSM. It is listed in HK, NY and Shanghai stock exchanges.
China Satcom is licensed to engage in all kind of satellite related
services such as transponder lease, domestic television broadcasting,
public VSAT (Very Small Antenna Aperture) communications, video conference,
data broadcasting, IP telephony and satellite based high-speed Internet
China Railcom grows at a slow pace  due to its lack of expertise in
daily business operation in addition to the lack of funds to upgrade
its existing private network so as to provide services to the general
7. Network Equipment Suppliers
The leading international suppliers of network equipment - Alcatel,
Cisco, Lucent, Nortel and Siemens - as well as the major international
suppliers of portable phone sets - Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and
also Siemens - are well known in China.
A large number of Chinese companies have developed under the
government’s protection  and compete now with foreign corporations not only in
the Chinese market but also in third-countries. Datang is the main
TD-SCDMA manufacturer, UTStarcom, the main PAS / PHS manufacturer, Huawei
leads the SMS market and Great Wall stands out in the broadband sector.
Other recognized Chinese equipment suppliers are Shanghai Bell and
Zhongxing Telecommunications Equipment (ZTE). Furthermore, Amoi, Konka,
Ningbo Bird and Keijan are the most representative Chinese mobile phone
manufactures   .
8. Telecommunications in Hong Kong (HK)
The former British colony has one of the most mature, sophisticated and
competitive telecom markets in the world. As a result, HK customers get
world class services in terms of capacity, speed and price. This has
been a decisive factor in HK’s development as a world leading business
and financial centre .
The Office of Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) is the legislative
body responsible for regulating the telecommunications industry in HK
. The HK government, through the OFTA, has fully liberalized all
telecom sectors and there are no foreign ownership restrictions.
In the local fixed-line market there is neither pre-set limit on the
number of licenses issued nor deadline for applications. In 2004, there
are nine fixed-line licenses: PCCW-HKT, New World Telephone Ltd., Wharf
T&T Ltd., Hutchinson Global Crossing Ltd., HK Broadband Network Ltd.,
Eastar Technology Ltd., CM Tel. (HK) Ltd., TraxComm Ltd. and HKC Network
Ltd. . Consequently, the telephone density is, with 56 lines per
100 people, among the highest in the world .
In 2004 there are 197 licensed Internet Service Providers (ISP) in HK,
providing dial-up or broadband services. HK is second after South Korea
in terms of broadband penetration rate (53%).
With regard to mobile services, the OFTA awarded four 3G licenses in
2001: HK CSL Ltd., Hutchinson 3G (HK) Ltd., SmartTone 3G Ltd. and Sunday
3G (HK) Ltd. The first 3G mobile services were launched in January 2004
. Moreover, these four 3G operators, together with New World
Mobility and Peoples Telephone Co. Ltd. operate a total of eleven GSM
networks. Thus, the mobile density in 2004 is, once again, one of the highest
in the world (106.3 %) .
HK continues to be a main entrance to the Chinese market for European
and American investors. In fact, Western agents in HK are increasingly
important to export networking equipment to China .
9. Sector Trends
China’s telecom sector is facing a transition from a period of
explosive growth to a period of mature growth . The growth rates, which
peaked in 1999 for broadband Internet users (350%), in 2000 for mobile
users (90%) and in 2001 for fixed-line subscribers (30%), have stabilized
(respectively about 40%, 20%, 10% in 2004)  . As many of China
citizens are still poor or live in remote areas , recruiting new
customers is getting more difficult.
China Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) boom is also over . Chinese
Carriers shift focus from network construction towards generating revenue
through new and better services . Anyway a slight CAPEX rebound is
expected when the new 3G licenses are issued.
Nevertheless there is no reason to panic about this decline. China
still has a great potential for further development and promises tremendous
opportunities for western companies. But given the transition to more
stable growth, it is extremely important for these companies to have an
objective perspective of the market and to understand which market
segments promise the best growth opportunities .
Particularly, best sales prospects for foreign companies in the near
future are in the following sub sectors: broadband (WLAN and ADSL),
Internet value-added capabilities (e-government, e-banking, e-commerce),
mobile and 3G .
Broadband is the fastest growing segment. Its future will be determined
by pricing, improved services and contents catering for young internet
users . Major barriers are the government’s continuing regulation of
content  and the legal void.
Regarding 3G, services are expected to have a slow take-off period
instead of an explosive one . From today’s perspective, it seems that
China Unicom will go on CDMA2000, that China Mobile will use W-CDMA and
that China Telecom and Netcom will deploy TD-SCDMA, at least in some
points of their networks .
Despite the “telecom miracle”, Chinese customers still pay relatively
high prices for products and services well below the quality they
This extremely competitive market is characterized by a multitude of
complex, multi-layered, political, economic and cultural factors that
must be carefully evaluated in order to be successful .
Another key aspect for a foreign investor in China is to master the
ancient Chinese art of “Guanxi” (network of contacts)  especially as
long as the MII continues to be both judge and party in the telecom
business, rather than an impartial regulator.
China’s telecom scenario in the next years is difficult to decipher.
The MII may remodel the present situation by introducing new players,
reorganizing the existing ones or assigning 3G licenses. Whether China
will continue to be “El Dorado” for the telecom industry is still a very
difficult question to answer. Future is murky. It was always like that
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