Here’s another problem that could hold up China’s 4G launch: the delay in closing down the Xiaolingtong network.
Xiaolingtong is a fixed-line or limited mobility service run by the two wireline operators, China Telecom and China Unicom. At one point it had more than 100 million customers as a low-priced cellular alternative using Japan’s PHS technology.
Yet while Xiaolingtong belongs to two of China’s three operators, the 1880-1920MHz band that it occupies is allocated to their competitor, China Mobile. Not only does it use a designated IMT TD-LTE band, but this was actually allocated to TD-SCDMA as far back as 2002, according to this story in Sina Tech (zh).
Not surprisingly, Telecom and Unicom wish to hang onto their valuable asset. China Mobile wants to take it from them; chairman Xi Guohua is quoted as pointedly saying that “the large amount of spectrum that is not being used very well” should be set aside for the state-backed TDD.
According to Sina, the two sides have reached an agreement whereby Xiaolingtong will handover a portion of the spectrum, but China Mobile will only get the remainder after Xiaolingtong has concluded its resettlement plan for remaining customers.
That could take some time. While the network managed to shed more than 5 million users last year, it still has a considerable number to work through.
Plus, there is still a good deal of activity on the network. Many observers believe the remaining customers are holdouts trying to gouge the operators, yet the network delivered more than 9 billion local calls last year.
On the plus side, China Telecom has just announced that it too will use TDD as well as FDD-LTE. China Unicom, a W-CDMA 3G provider, is speculated to be planning a similar move.
Thus, the most likely solution is that two or perhaps all operators will share the Xiaolingtong spectrum. But the hard part will be clearing the frequencies altogether. It certainly won’t be in time for the expected 4G launch in the first quarter of 2014.