China has awarded TDD spectrum for LTE to all three mobile operators, and while the wireless suppliers, in particular, seem to have been waiting for this moment for aeons, in fact it is well ahead of schedule and indicates the importance of 4G to the country‘s ongoing economic transformation – to bring broadband services to more inhabitants and businesses, and to kickstart a global TD-LTE ecosystem which Chinese companies shape and dominate.
At one time, China's MIIT (Ministry of Industry and Information) hinted it might delay new spectrum allocations until 2015 to allow the cellcos to maximize returns on their 3G investments first. China Mobile, stuck with the least attractive 3G platform – the homegrown and isolated TD-SCDMA, with its shortage of devices and performance gaps – lobbied against this view, seeing its smaller rivals, China Unicom and China Telecom, already closing on it in terms of 3G uptake.
The largest carrier embarked on an ambitious series of TD-LTE roll-outs – trials in name but supporting wide-scale coverage and full services – designed to instil confidence in the technology and attract ecosystem support, in effect promoting it to almost-equal partnership with its better established FDD cousin.
In a final effort to swing the balance of power back in its own direction, Mobile also lobbied for Unicom and Telecom, which have their 3G networks in FDD spectrum, to be given TDD frequencies for 4G.
Although they will get FDD-LTE allocations in future, for now they have a dilemma – to move quickly to LTE and keep up with Mobile, they will need to invest in an unfamiliar technology and in multimode devices; to keep everything in paired spectrum, they will need to stick to 3G for mobile broadband services, perhaps for 2-3 more years. Of course, it is getting increasingly practical to combine 3G, FD-LTE and TD-LTE, with vendors gathering around the likes of Softbank and Sprint, but it will still increase the time-to-market gap between the Chinese players.
In other words, the largest cellco has played a blinder here and will now be able to expand its own roll-outs, and its 4G headstart over its competitors. It has already been overlaying LTE on existing TD-SCDMA sites and will now have new spectrum capacity, as well as, it is assumed, winning the 4G operating licence to accompany the frequencies – which will let it switch its existing trial systems to full commercial status.