Xiaolingtong users vow to fight closure

Sen-Iun Yu

China's MIIT is determined to bring down the curtain on the still-popular low-cost Xiaolingtong mobile service.

But the 69 million Xiaolingtong users and their supporters have signaled that they will not give up their handsets without a fight.

 MIIT announced in early February that it wanted to close the service to clear the way for the local champion, TD-SCDMA. 

A notice on MIIT's website called for the return of Xiaolingtong's 1900- to 1920-MHz spectrum by 2011 and asked China Telecom and Unicom to stop adding users and coverage.  Carriers were also told to ensure that their service did not interfere with TD services in the 1880- to 1900-MHz spectrum.

Since its launch by fixed-line operators in the early part of the decade, Xiaolingtong has become popular among low-income groups, senior citizens and, because of its limited propagation, medical professionals. But numbers have been declining in recent years because of the fall in cellular handsets and service fees.

Xiaolingtong phones are hardly seen in shops in downtown Beijing but are widely available in other parts of the city.  A monthly subscription costs RMB50 ($7.30), and handsets are priced between RMB200 and RMB1000 - around a third of the price of a cellular phone.

In an online survey of more than 35,000 by China's biggest internet portal, sina.com, about 70% said they still wanted to use the service.  About 50% wished to have the same phone rate, while about 30% of them said they should be offered a free mobile phone as compensation.

In media reports and online chatrooms, Xiaolingtong users vowed they would hold out until the last minute.  'If they tear down my house, the government would settle us in a new house.  But when they take away Xiaolingtong, what will we get‾' a Guangxi-based salesman told Chinese media.

Several vowed to become a Xiaolingtong 'nail house' - a reference to residents who refuse to leave their homes to make way for new developments.

Dong Zhengwei from the Zhongyin law firm in Beijing called on MIIT to release all documents on the Xiaolingtong closure and to hold a public hearing about the future of Xiaolingtong. 

'Whether Xiaolingtong should really be closed should be decided by the market. The government's policy demanding Telecom and Unicom to close the service at the same time is a monopoly agreement, forcing the enterprises to do a monopoly business,' he said.

He Tingrun, senior advisor of the National Radio Spectrum Management Research Institute, said carriers could consider marking out a 2G number range that to provide a service similar to Xiaolingtong's level with cheaper rates.

So far, neither China Unicom nor China Telecom has announced offers for Xiaolingtong subscribers but said they would seriously explore programs for consumers during the transition period. 

Both companies said that for now it is still business as usual for Xiaolingtong. Neither is planning any change in service.

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