When It Comes to 5G Base Stations, How Far Ahead is China?

January 08, 2021 by Luke James

China is reporting more 5G base stations than the combined total of stations in all other countries. What might this mean for the telecom sector in the US?

In November, China claimed that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it had built over 700,000 5G base stations in 2020, adding to the 100,000 base stations built in 2019. This means that China as a single country has more base stations than the combined total of every other nation on earth.  

In 2021, Chinese operators aim to build between 600,000 and 1 million, meaning that the total number of base stations could exceed 1.7 million by the end of the year, according to Wu Hequan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. In terms of the number of terminal devices connected to China’s 5G network, this is said to have exceeded the 180 million mark. 


A Note on Population Scaling

China isn’t only leading the way when it comes to base stations, either. According to the Wall Street Journal, China has more 5G subscribers than the U.S. per capita. It also has more 5G smartphones for sale, more widespread 5G coverage, and faster connections to boot. 


Timeline of China's 5G development from 2015–2020

Timeline of China's 5G development from 2015–2020. Image used courtesy of EY (PDF)

It’s important to keep in mind that China is over four times the size of the United States in terms of population count; China’s 1.4 billion people dwarfs the United States’ 330 million. It, therefore, makes sense that China has more base stations—it needs more to cope with the additional demand from an additional billion people and all of their devices. 

However, the fact that China has managed to get so far ahead in the deployment of 5G is still worth noting, especially as the so-called race for 5G persists in U.S. policy discussions


U.S. Metrics of 5G Expansion Differ

While China has been explicit in the country's base station production and 5G subscribers, U.S. figures are more difficult to come by. This is because U.S. mobile operators like AT&T and Verizon don’t disclose subscriber numbers, nor do other bodies like the FCC publish figures on base stations and cell towers. 


Employees working on a 5G base station

Employees working on a 5G base station in Fenggang, Guizhou province, China. Image used courtesy of Reuters and The Korea Times

It’s therefore difficult to gauge just how the U.S. compares to China in terms of raw numbers. It’s also difficult to monitor domestic progress and see how rapidly new 5G base stations are being deployed. 

While it’s true that China appears to be leading the way in terms of raw numbers, there are other important considerations in progressing 5G in 2021. 


Looking to Suppliers to Gauge 5G Innovation

We can see how the industry is responding by looking at the movements that tech leaders are making.

Qualcomm, for example, announced in October that it will begin producing chips for 5G telecommunication networks. This marked the first entry by a major American firm into an arena dominated by Chinese and European firms like Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson. Rather than challenge these firms, Qualcomm plans to become a supplier of chips to these companies as the technology in 5G base stations shifts, subject to U.S. policy. 


Verizon received the first U.S. manufactured 5G base station

Back in July of last year, Verizon received the first U.S. manufactured 5G base station from a facility in Texas. Pictured is Verizon's CTO Kyle Malady holding some of the hardware. Image used courtesy of Ericsson

The 5G Race is Just Beginning

A larger 5G network will not necessarily lead to superior performance, and, as has been touched on, China will need over four times as many base stations as the U.S. to support its larger population and the increased demand this will place on the network. Furthermore, where China’s mobile operators count each individual base station, U.S. operators report physical "cell sites" where it’s typical to find more than one base station. 

When adjusted for population size, the statistics that we do have show that the U.S. and China actually aren’t too far away from one another in terms of the pace of deployment. In 2019, U.S. firms built one cell site for every 7,134 people while China is projected to have built one site for every 6,965 people in 2020. 

Given that the success of countries’ 5G deployments will hinge more on the quality of the infrastructure and the components used within it, there’s little reason for alarm when it comes to the position of the U.S. in this so-called race, especially as firms like Qualcomm throw their hats into the ring.