By Dan Strumpf
HONG KONG -- By most measures, China is no longer just leading the U.S. when it comes to 5G. It is running away with the game.
China has more 5G subscribers than the U.S., not just in total but per capita. It has more 5G smartphones for sale, and at lower prices, and it has more-widespread 5G coverage. Connections in China are, on average, faster than in the U.S., too.
When it comes to the things that are supposed to make 5G revolutionary, not just evolutionary -- the apps made possible by the greater speeds and capacity -- China's front-runner status is less well-entrenched. For both countries, supposedly life-changing 5G applications, like self-driving cars, remote surgeries and automated factory floors, are still years away from widespread use. However, China's lead in 5G-network rollouts could set it up to pull ahead in this respect as well.
Measured in terms of the full scope of benefits delivered to consumers and industry by 5G, Edison Lee, a Hong Kong-based telecom analyst at investment bank Jefferies, says he doesn't think there's much difference yet between the two countries. But, he says, "If you measure the progress in terms of how much the network has been built, China is far ahead."
Where China has a definite edge is in the nuts and bolts of 5G. By year's end, China will have an estimated 690,000 5G base stations -- boxes that blast 5G signals to consumers -- up and running across the country, compared with 50,000 in the U.S., according to Handel Jones, chief executive of International Business Strategies Inc., a research firm.
That lead has helped Chinese smartphone companies get a head start in launching 5G-enabled phones. Apple Inc. only launched its first 5G-enabled device last month, and U.S. consumers had just 16 5G smartphones to choose from as of September, according to market tracker Canalys. Chinese users had 86.
In China, 5G phones are less expensive, too: $458, on average, in the second quarter of this year, compared with $1,079 in the U.S., according to Canalys.
Analysts attribute China's lead in the rollout and adoption of 5G in large part to the heavy hand of Beijing, which has set aggressive targets for 5G connectivity for the country's three state-run telecom operators. China's big telecom equipment vendors, Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp., have been given the lion's share of 5G work in the country. However, Swedish rival Ericsson AB last month touted its 5G contracts in China as the driving force behind its 7% rise in third-quarter adjusted revenue.
The top-down approach has led to a more uniform version of 5G throughout the country, compared with the U.S., and more consistent speeds, says Wayne Lam, director of research at CCS Insight. "There's a lot more central planning" behind China's approach, Mr. Lam says.
The U.S., by contrast, has more-fragmented 5G coverage and uneven speeds. For example, while superfast 5G known as "millimeter wave" exists in a few crowded hot spots, like stadiums -- and is not yet available to consumers in China -- 5G is slower everywhere else in the U.S.
To spur development of services that will capitalize on 5G's strengths, China is running trials of different applications and encouraging different industries to think about using 5G, says Jefferies' Mr. Lee. Huawei, for example, has touted examples of 5G enabling remote diagnoses of Covid-19. Last month, the state-run mining company Shandong Energy Group Co. announced the launch of a 5G network that would beam signals deep into underground coal mines.
These applications are still in their infancy, and it's not clear they are economical enough for widespread adoption, analysts say. "In terms of commercializing something, it's still not happening yet," says Mr. Lee.
China's 5G network rollout itself, meanwhile, is not without its shortcomings. At an industry event in China last month, Ryan Ding, head of the carrier business at Huawei, the leading maker of 5G equipment, said China's 5G network covers only 8% of the population. In South Korea, by comparison, 5G covers 25% of the population, said Mr. Ding, who added that China's 5G network is also slower than those of South Korea, Switzerland and other countries.
Mr. Ding also cited instances of Chinese smartphones that display a 5G logo on their screens despite getting only a 4G connection, and frequent ping-ponging between 4G and 5G networks.
"At present, China has built the world's largest 5G network," Mr. Ding said. However, he added, when compared with South Korea, Switzerland and a handful of other countries on the cutting edge of 5G, China still has room for improvement.
CCS Insight's Mr. Lam, meanwhile, pointing out that China has succeeded in laying the groundwork for a 5G network that is large, fast and consistent, says that compared with 5G in the U.S., "from the metric of coverage and advancement, I would say China is kind of leading."
Mr. Strumpf is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong. He can be reached at email@example.com.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires