China has just reached 233.44 million 3G subscribers across its three mobile telcos. Digging back through the self-reported stats for each, I noticed that the end of 2009 is the earliest firm data point for all companies involved, so let’s take a look at three years of stunning 3G growth in China.
The newest numbers for 2012 Q4 show that China Mobile (NYSE:CHL; HKG:0941) is up to 87.93 million on its 3G network, closely followed by China Unicom (NYSE:CHU; HKG:0762) with 76.46 million, and China Telecom (NYSE:CHA; HKG:0728) with 69.05 million. It’s all quite equal (see graph below), and growing at a steady rate.
It’s interesting that the iPhone is not visible as a bump in the charts, but instead it seems to have contributed to the strength of China Unicom (which is actually the country’s smallest mobile telco by overall subscriber numbers) in the long run, allowing it to punch above its weight and closely tail China Mobile in the 3G market.
Or perhaps that’s just down to China Unicom’s very common W-CDMA 3G network, which gives its users access to most of the hottest smartphones out there. In stark contrast, China Mobile’s homegrown TD-SCDMA standard doesn’t support any Apple devices, and relies on handset makers agreeing to make a TD-SCDMA device for the world’s biggest telco. Many big brands like HTC and Motorola have done that; Apple obviously hasn’t.
Many analysts are awaiting 4G hitting China. But that’s very unlikely to happen nationwide this year, as a series of city tests continue apace. 2014 is more likely for that. And so by this time next year, it’s conceivable that there’ll be half a million on 3G. Here’s how it has panned out in the past few years  in our chart:
The only figures missing are China Telecom’s stats for 2010 Q1, Q2, and Q3. So those have been calculated as growing progressively from the telco’s self-reported 2009 Q4 to 2010 Q4 numbers. ↩