No fixed date for Chinese 3G, says minister

China’s telecommunications minister has said the country has no timetable for the introduction of third-generation (3G) cellular telephone services and will wait until both technology and applications have matured before allowing carriers to introduce such services.

“It really depends on when we are going to have the mature 3G applications and services,” said Wu Jichuan, China’s minister for the information industry (MII), speaking at a news conference here Tuesday during the Telecom Asia 2002 exhibition. “In recent years we have learned a lot of lessons in the worldwide market. The 3G technology really developed very rapidly however when are we going to have 3G applications or when will these applications become commercially available. This is really an issue that we need to consider.”

“It really depends on the maturity of the technology and market. It is not a single person that can make a decision about a mobile license,” he said.

His comments mean that issuance of 3G licenses in China is unlikely to happen until he steps down from his post as minister, which is expected to happen after the National People’s Congress in March next year.

Wu apparently wants to avoid repeating the experiences of Japan’s NTT DoCoMo Inc., which was the first carrier to launch 3G services. Its Foma service, launched in Oct. 2001, has seriously underperformed and caused some embarrassment for NTT DoCoMo. A combination of immature technology, which meant bulky handsets with a short battery life, and the lack of a single killer application meant the service has attracted just 142,100 subscribers by the end of October this year. The carrier’s original target was 1.4 million by the end of this year.

A delay in the introduction of services also means less competition for China United Telecommunications Corp. (China Unicom) as it gears up to launch a CDMA2000 1x network later this year. The new network will offer data transmission at speeds up to 144K bps (bits per second).

The minister also said that carriers applying for 3G licenses will not be required to adopt the TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access) standard but allowed to chose from between that standard and Wideband CDMA or CDMA2000. TD-SCDMA was developed in China by Chinese and foreign companies and was once considered the likely 3G standard that China would adopt.

“TD-SCDMA, W-CDMA and CDMA2000 have all been adopted (by the International Telecommunication Union) as the 3G standard. As these are international technologies, each country can adopt this standard based on their own situation,” he said.

Wu also said that the MII is yet to decide on whether to issue additional mobile licenses. At present China has two mobile carriers, China Mobile Communications Corp. and China Unicom. The former was created from the break-up of China Telecom leaving the carrier with no nationwide mobile license.

“We do not make any decision on mobile licenses. For China Telecom, when it was split up, in the document of the state council it was specified that we need to establish four operators that are all full service operators but so far we do not have any schedule for the issuing of those mobile licenses.”