China Mobile (NYSE:CHL), the world’s largest wireless carrier, has been in the news recently for its plans in rolling out its 4G LTE mobile services. China Mobile’s 4G plans are important as it has struggled to attract a significant 3G subscriber base relative to its total subscriber base of over 700 million.
The proprietary TD-SCDMA 3G network used by China Mobile has had difficulty drawing adopters since handset makers have to include built in support for this network, something that some smartphone manufacturers like Apple haven’t supported so far. This enabled smaller competitors such as China Unicom (NYSE:CHU) and China Telecom (NYSE:CHA) to build substantial 3G subscriber bases quickly.
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Huge Capex Lined Up
The company has already built more than 20,000 TD-LTE base stations in 15 cities for pre-commercial trials of its 4G services. In June 2013, it invited subscribers from Shanghai, Tianjing, Fuzhou, Xiamen and Chengdu for a public trial of its 4G network.
By the end of 2013, China Mobile plans to spread its TD-LTE network to 100 cities by constructing more than 200,000 base stations with an investment of $6.7 billion. China Mobile recently came out with a very large tender for its TD-LTE network equipment, implying that it could be closer to getting a 4G license, which is expected to be issued later this year. Overall, China Mobile plans to spend close to $30 billion in 2013 for upgrading its network along with the construction of transmission facilities and other infrastructure.  China Mobile’s capex as a percentage of sales has historically been in the 20-25% range. However, we estimate it to will rise to around 30% due to its heavy capex plans for TD-LTE network deployment.
Are There Enough 4G Devices?
Even though China Mobile’s 3G subscriber additions have picked up recently, its 3G penetration lingers at a paltry 18%. (see China Mobile Rides The Smartphone Wave As Data Revenue Is Key To Growth) In contrast, rivals China Unicom and China Telecom have been way more successful in attracting 3G subscribers, with 3G penetration levels of 38% and 50% respectively. One of the major reasons for China Mobile’s lackluster 3G performance is that there haven’t been enough smartphones compatible with its indigenously built TD-SCDMA network.
Well aware of this fact, China Mobile is strategically coordinating with chipmakers and smartphone manufacturers to ensure that there is a wide variety of 4G smartphones in the market prior to the commercial launch of its 4G services. Moreover, TD-LTE is a much more popular mobile standard compared to TD-SCDMA and has been deployed by large carriers like Softbank (Japan), Sprint/Clearwire (US) and Bharti Airtel (India). According to a recent report from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), nearly 200 TD-LTE devices have been announced by smartphone manufacturers to date. 
Even though it seems low compared to 950 odd devices for the FDD-LTE standard, TD-LTE devices are likely to increase once China Mobile – the world’s largest mobile operator gets a 4G license. According to a report from ABI Research, almost half of all LTE macro base stations will be TD-LTE and LTE-Advanced by 2015.  If this pans out as predicted, there is unlikely to be any shortage of TD-LTE devices.
Penetration Potential For 4G Is Bright
With backing from large mobile operators, TD-LTE is gradually gaining clout within the mobile ecosystem. Now with more than a billion potential customers who enjoy 4G services on the TD-LTE standard, smartphone manufacturers have responded by rolling out TD-LTE enabled versions of smartphones. On the chip vendor’s side, Qualcomm has released its RF360 chipset which supports a wide variety of cellular bands including TD-LTE. (see Qualcomm Continues To Lead The LTE Market With First Global LTE Chip) In a recent development, Samsung released a Galaxy Note 2 version for specifically targeting China Mobile’s 700 million subscribers. The device is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 chip, which is compatible with both TD-SCDMA and TD-LTE. 
China Mobile has also forged tie-ups with other leading smartphone makers like HTC, LG, Huawei and ZTE as it plans to launch 11 TD-LTE compatible smartphones this year.   China Mobile has also procured 200,000 4G terminals in preparation of its 4G services rollout.  In essence, China Mobile is making sure that TD-LTE does not meet the same fate as TD-SCDMA.Notes: