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.
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).
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.
Just what we need, a new technology that uses an extra $29 billion a year in electricity generated by burning coal.