China Surprises

Since I’m in the telecom business, I find it useful to check in with the IEEE ComSoc technology blog periodically. (Here.)

The China International Information and Communication Exhibition opened the other day, in Beijing. One prominent speaker was Ding Yun, Executive Director at Huawei and president of the carrier business group.

Mr. Ding had something to get off his chest.

China of course has rapidly built out its 5G network and claims somewhere near 100m 5G subscribers, served by more than 250,000 new base-stations. And Huawei has been a big part of this.

So it must have come as a bit of a shock to the assembled executives and enthusiasts when the Executive Director described the 5G user experience in China in this way:

Fake, dumb, and poor.

Yes, that’s what he said.

The translation may be rough, so in case we non-Chinese-speakers weren’t certain we heard correctly, he went on to explain.

It’s ‘poor’ because the average downlink speed is just 270Mbs.

It’s ‘dumb’, because it’s built on the non-standalone standard (Rel 15) and many places with a 5G signal have no 4G anchor. So, no connection.

And it’s ‘fake’ because the phone will show a 5G logo when connected to just 4G.

(-Ahem-ATT 5Ge-cough-)

The more I think about this, there more there seems to be to think about.

First, the obvious. We’re not used to hearing this kind of public candor from a Chinese Ă©minence grise. Yet lightning did not strike. Mr. Ding Yun was not hustled away in handcuffs to a black van waiting outside. And he is still listed as Executive Director on Huawei’s web site. I checked, this morning.

What’s wrong with this picture? Could it possibly be that western coverage of China is a tad parochial? A mite cartoon-ish, dare I say?

Something to ponder.

Then there is the idea that an average download speed of 270Mbs is ‘poor’.

After a quick search, I found this survey, conducted in “26 US cities” using high-end (not average) Samsung devices.

The survey reported an average downlink speed of 74-105Mbs (4G/5G combined), depending on the particular network. And, to repeat, this is with high-end phones: “We chose these phones because they offer the best 4G and 5G performance available.”

The real average, with a real-world mix of phones, would be closer to 50Mbs, I’d wager.

And, for a little local color, I made an informal test drive around my city. With an average phone. I found a number of areas (on a busy street near a municipal fire station, for instance) where the downlink speed hovered around 1Mbs.

But Ding Yun did not compare China with the US. He compared it with South Korea, where the average is apparently 600Mbs.

Now, what would anyone do with 600Mbs, you ask. Usually, nothing. But you have to remember, the signal is shared among multiple users. If ten or fifteen or twenty users are sharing a downlink whose total speed is 50Mbs – well, you do the math. It’s about capacity and latency, how many users can be provided with what level of service.

So, sure, Dallas and Detroit are not nearly as dense as Seoul, and they don’t need 600Mbs. Not today. But we’re not exactly advancing by leaps and bounds. The Sprint/T-Mobile merger was nearly torpedoed by seemingly endless litigation (seriously misguided and maybe a little too political, IMHO), and fortunately the combined entity is now in a better position spectrum-wise to leverage 5G.

Seriously. A 5G network built on just 600MHz? (T-Mobile – poor capacity) Or just 2600MHz? (Sprint – poor coverage)

Incidentally, Ding Yun is a fairly young guy.

Regarding ‘fake’, well, I’ve already made my comment.

As Jim Jeffries likes to say, I think we can all do better.

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