Mounted on rooftops, utility poles and streetlights throughout China since last year are hundreds of thousands of high-tech wireless towers for 5G, a powerful sign of the country's ambition to lead in new technology. Yet many of them are operational for only half the day.
China Unicom, one of three telecommunication operators, announced in August that its Luoyang branch in Henan province would automatically switch its 5G transmitter stations to sleep mode from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. because there were few people using them. The other two carriers quickly followed suit and since then have rolled out the same policies in other cities across the country.
"Shutting down base stations is not a manual shutdown, but an automatic adjustment made at a certain time,” Wang Xiaochu, chairman of China Unicom, said at the company's midyear earnings conference.
5G is one of the biggest technology investments in China's recent history. Touted as the next big leap forward in digital communication, the 5th generation mobile network technology is supposed to change the world and spur a new digital revolution.
China officially launched its commercial 5G networks in September 2019 with the promise of delivering unprecedented digital speed to support new applications from autonomous driving to virtual surgery. More than a year later, the biggest 5G market is now facing widespread complaints about network speed and skyrocketing costs of deployments.
Signals are hitting walls
To handle more data at higher speeds, 5G uses higher frequencies than current networks. However, the signals travel shorter distances and encounter more interference.
"5G uses ultra-high frequency signals, which are about two to three times higher than the existing 4G signal frequency, so the signal coverage will be limited," Wang Xiaofei, a communication expert at Tianjin University told Xinhua, the official state-run press agency, last year as the country's state telecoms started to make 5G networks available to the public.
Wang said since the coverage radius of its base station is only about 100 meters to 300 meters, China must build a station every 200 to 300 meters in urban areas. Because the penetration of 5G signals is so weak, even indoor stations will have to be built in densely distributed office buildings, residential areas, and commercial districts.
And to reach the same coverage that 4G currently has, the carriers eventually need to install as many as 10 million stations across the country, according to a report by Xinhua.
"For the next three years starting this year, 1 million 5G base stations may need to be built every year," Xiang Ligang, director-general of the Information Consumption Alliance, a telecom industry association, told the state media last year.
In the first half of this year, China only built 257,000 new 5G base stations. The total number of the stations installed across China so far was only about 410,000 by the end of June, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).
Big costs, small benefits?
The cost of the energy needed to power 5G has proved to be one of the biggest headaches for Chinese telecommunication companies.
"The 5G base station equipment consumes about three times more energy than 4G because of the way the technology works," Soumya Sen, associate professor of information and decision sciences at the University of Minnesota, told VOA in an email. "5G uses multiple antennas to make use of reflected signals from buildings to provide gains in channel robustness and throughput."
If 5G is to reach the same level of coverage as 4G networks, the base station's annual electricity bill will approach $29 billion, according to a report by the China Post and Telecommunications News, a media outlet directly under MIIT. That amount represents about 10 times the 2019 profit of China Telecom, one of the three state-owned telecommunication companies in China.
In the early days, there were efforts to make 5G more power-efficient than its predecessors, but the ambitions were quickly dashed as realities settled in.
Two months after the official rollout of 5G services, a top executive from a Chinese carrier admitted that operators had made little progress in reducing 5G power consumption and cost. Speaking at a GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association) seminar in Beijing last week, Li Zhengmao, executive vice president of China Mobile called on the government to subsidize electricity costs for telecoms.
"This might require government to support extended periods for subsidized monthly fees or subsidized handsets at the B2C [business to consumer] level, or tax breaks and other incentives," said Ross Feingold, a lawyer and political risk analyst.
The total investment could top $220 billion in the next few years, said Li Yizhong, former minister of Industry and Information Technology early this year during a forum.
Another former official warned in a recent speech that China’s 5G push could become a failed investment.
"The existing 5G technology is very immature, hundreds of billions of investment have been deployed, and the operating cost is extremely high, no application scenarios can be found, and it is difficult to digest the cost in the future," former finance minister Lou Jiwei reportedly warned in a recent speech last month.
"It is difficult for ordinary consumers and industry users to see the long-term benefits and rewards of 5G," a white paper titled "The 2020 China 5G Economic Report" released by China Academy of Information and Communications Technology said.
Based on a recent survey of Chinese consumers, 73.3% of the people polled said they believe that there is no need for the public to buy 5G mobile phones. The study released last month by iiMedia, a market research group, also found that the main reason for not buying 5G mobile phones is because there is no such need.
With all the expectations and the investment, 5G is “actually exaggerated,” and it is not something that the societies need anyway, according to the man who leads a company that dominates the technology.
"In fact, human societies do not have an urgent need for 5G," said Huawei's founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei, "What people need now is broadband, and the main content of 5G is not broadband."