China missed out, says John Ure, professor and director of the Telecoms Research Project at University of Hong Kong. He's referring to the global tussle a few years ago among telecom providers to roll out winning second-generation (2G) technology to provide ever faster, ever more reliable mobile phone services, which China wasn't a part of. Since then, China's plan has been to use its late start in telecoms innovation as a way of enabling the country's telcos to “leapfrog” older technologies and gain an edge over market pioneers.

That's the theory. In practice, Beijing’s experience with third-generation (3G) mobile phone technology suggests the race to set world standards and acquire market share is too competitive for latecomers like China to win, and that the gap cannot be closed through government policy alone. Though it's a lesson that high-tech industries in other parts of the world have learned before, China is finding out for itself how costly its plan is becoming.

“China has a dream of having its own national standards and the government’s policy is for 'indigenous innovation,'” says Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA, a telecoms consulting firm in Beijing, and visiting scholar at the Stanford Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Stanford University. “They are now realizing the cost of that mistake. They will never admit that they made a mistake, but they are increasingly aware of it.”

China’s 3G technology, developed with support from German multinational Siemens, is known by the tongue-twisting acronym TD-SCDMA, which is short for Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access. Having received approval from the standards setters at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Beijing awarded the sole license for that technology two years ago to China Mobile, the largest mobile phone company in the world by subscriber numbers. Seemingly as a consolation prize, China Mobile's rival mobile service providers were given licenses to other technology standards, which are in fact more established and widely used in other parts of the world: China Unicom got the license for the WCDMA standard, while China Telecom, the country’s fixed-line giant, got the CDMA2000 standard.

In terms of which of the three has the most 3G subscribers in the country, China Mobile is ahead of the pack. But with a total of just over 600 million subscribers, including 3G, its lead is not as big as one would expect of a company that got a significant head start. China Unicom has 174.5 million subscribers and China Telecom 100 million.

Having launched its 3G service in April 2009, China Mobile now has around 27 million 3G subscribers. China Telecom, which launched its 3G services just over two years ago, has 16.4 million subscribers. China Unicom — the firm that was set up in 1994 to make the telecoms market more competitive — launched its 3G service a few months after the other two and now has 18.5 million subscribers.

Not So Fast

A look at how TD-SCDMA is faring suggests that, just as Japan’s Sony discovered with its failed Betamax video technology, forging ahead with an exclusive technology in today’s globalized markets can be costly. The problem is twofold: China Mobile's TD-SCDMA technology slow and unreliable, and its customers have a limited range of products to choose from, since handset manufacturers are more interested in churning out new phones enabled for other standards that are more popular.

So where does China Mobile go from here? “China Mobile has a problem with TD-SCDMA and wants to get out of it as soon as possible,” observes Clark. He says the company has now set its sights on the next generation of mobile technology that it has developed, known as TD-LTE. There is a hitch, however. While winning support from carriers outside the country, its capabilities are regarded by industry experts as a “3.9 generation technology”rather than a clear 4G breakthrough, according to Ryoji Nakagawa, an international relations professor specializing in China's IT industry at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. (Two other 4G standards have won ITU approval: an upgrade of TD-LTE called TD-LTE advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced.)

But there is an argument that China Mobile doesn't need to be so concerned whether it can move on to the next big international standard. With a population of 1.3 billion, it home market for mobile phones is enormous, at 876 million mobile phone subscribers as of the end of March 2011. What's more, the country’s slow introduction of 3G means that only 7% of China’s mobile phone subscribers were using 3G services, compared with around 47% in Europe, 40% in the U.S. and 100% in Japan. That could change soon, particularly as rising incomes in China mean that more customers can afford the 3G services that are too expensive for them now. Telecom analysts forecast that 3G penetration in China will growtoat least 40% by 2015 from 7%. BDA says China will have 550 million 3G subscribers by 2015, accounting for about 60% of total mobile phone usersin China.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Nakagawa reckons Beijing's high-tech strategists have shot themselves in the foot when it comes to consumer innovation and their focus on TD-SCDMA. He notes that because the government has made the development of military technology such a high priority, China lags other countries in consumer innovation. One upshot: Chinese companies, generally, "want to use products already developed and make money quickly without spending on research and development,” he says.

Despite Beijing's latest ambitions for indigenous innovation, the telecoms market remains beholden to foreign technology. It's a similar situation in the auto sector, despite spending more than 20 years pursuing policies to promote homegrown industries. While Chinese companies in such sectors scramble to catch up with foreign rivals, multinational leaders surge further ahead and continue to innovate.

“China still has a long way to go before closing the innovation gap” with other countries like the U.S., according to Dieter Ernst, a senior fellow at Hawaii-based think tank East-West Center. At a congressional hearing about growth and innovation in China held on Capitol Hill in June, he noted that no Chinese company ranks among the top 20 global R&D spenders in IT and as a country, it will account for just 13% of global R&D spending this year, compared with the U.S.'s 34%. What’s more, China holds just 2% of the world's patents, with 95% of those patents were filed domestically, rather than internationally.

It's no surprise, then, that TD-SCDMA is a sensitive topic in China, especially since China Mobile did not want to use the standard in the first place. “In the beginning, before the government issued 3G licenses, China Mobile wanted to use WCDMA,” which was more conducive to roaming inside and outside the country, recalls Marvin Lo, regional head of telecoms research at Daiwa Capital Markets in Hong Kong.

But politics prevailed and China Mobile was obliged to accept Beijing’s belief that the telco stood the best chance of making TD-SCDMA a success, says Sandy Shen, research director and telecoms specialist at IT research house Gartner in Shanghai. “China Mobile had no choice but to take TD-SCDMA to move to 3G,” she says.

That the government hedged its bets by allocating licenses for two internationally accepted standards suggests that some policy makers had their doubts about TD-SCDMA, Nakagawa adds. Was Japan fresh in Beijing's memory? With its Personal Digital Cellularstandard back in the very early days of mobile phones, Japan’s 2G market became isolated globally, at a high price. “It destroyed the global market for Japanese telecom vendors," says Clark of BDA."If you put up walls and keep others out, you will also block your own people from the international market. Today, NEC, Hitachi and Fujitsu just small players in the telecom world. I have been telling the Chinese that they should learn from Japan but they do not listen.”

Now, the gap between TD-SCDMA and the other standards is a huge liability for China Mobile. Having launched its 3G services some eight years after WCDMA and CDMA2000, China Mobile's network development has suffered, says Tomoo Marukawa, a China industry and economy specialist at Tokyo University’s Institute of Social Sciences.

Chickens and Eggs

China Mobile could already be losing its 3G lead as a result. China Mobile's 3G subscriber numbers include many fixed-line customers who use TD-SCDMA networks and are on cheap monthly packages — paying as little as RMB 10 a month and RMB 0.06 per minute for call. This inflates the number of customers it claims to have. Around 40% of China Mobile’s 3G customers fit that profile, says Shen of Gartner. By comparison, China Telecom charges RMB 25 a month for its fixed-line services, with RMB 0.2 per three minutes for local calls.

While China Mobile declined to provide comment for this article, a report from Credit Suisse says during the peak time of between 12 pm and 5 pm, Unicom’s 3G data speed can be from four times to six times faster than those of China Mobile’s networks. Tests in April in Shanghai and Beijing found that Unicom’s CDMA speed ranged from 1.83 megabytes to 3.19 megabytes per second at 12 pm and from 1.93 megabytes to 3.03 megabytes per second at 5 pm. TD-SCDMA’s connections ranged from 279 kilobytes per second to 525 kilobytes at 12 pm and 485 kilobytes to 862 kilobytes at 5 pm. (A megabyte is 1,025 kilobytes.)

China Mobile has said it plans to increase speeds soon, but aware of the slow connectivity, China Mobile sales staff in Shanghai recommended to one shopper recently to use the provider's Wi-Fi networks, rather than switching to 3G, despite the fact that Credit Suisse says the Wi-Fi network only raises data speeds from 843 kilobyte per second to 1.89 megabyte per second.

Another snag is that because China Mobile is the only provider using TD-SCDMA, the range of handsets it can offer its customers is also limited. Only about 60 smartphones are available with China Mobile’s TD-SCDMA, compared with 200 for China Unicom’s WCDMA and 100 for China Telecom’s CDMA2000.

”WCDMA has been used by the rest of the world for many years and has a much stronger supply chain," says Daiwa’s Lo. With TD-SCDMA, "it's the usual chicken-and-egg problem. Handset vendors argue that if [a telco] does not have that many subscribers, why should they invest in this technology? On the other hand, consumers would argue, ‘While handset availability is so low, why should I use TD-SCDMA?’”

Clark predicts that China Unicom will become the dominant provider in China. But others point out that China Unicom’s swift increase in subscribers has been due mainly to the launch of its iPhone services in China in late 2009. The company offers free handsets to customers who sign up for a two-year subscription plan. But the company must pay for those handsets upfront, putting "some pressure on their profit margins,” says Shen.

Moreover, others say Apple's iCloud — the service unveiled at its annual developers conference in June, which allows users to store data, such as music files, to download to iPhones, iPods, iPadsand other devices– could  lead to huge bandwidth demand and cause the quality of networks to deteriorate. “The iPhone is clearly a market favorite for now," says Ure. "But its longer term success depends on the Apple model of 'cloud'-based, multi-device access and the business model that it supports.”

Unicom also may not keep its exclusive hold on the iPhone market. China Telecom is in talks with Apple after Verizon's launch in the U.S. of CDMA earlier this year. “Apple is already providing iPhones to Verizon. So why not?” says Lo.  But to China Mobile’s disadvantage, he says it is “very unlikely” Apple will produce a TD-SCDMA version.

Given the pressure in 3G, China Mobile does want to move to its 4G TD-LTE technology. It plans to begin pre-commercial trials in six cities this year, and Miao Yu, head of China's Ministry of Information Industry, has said wider deployment of 4G networks across the country may begin in 2014.

It's anyone's guess how much demand for 4G there will be. “China Unicom and China Telecom have not talked about 4G at all," says Lo of Daiwa. "I guess they are focusing on 3G at the moment because they have mature technology and do not need to worry about it.”

And for many millions of Chinese, their 2G phones are good enough for the time being too. “In rural and poor areas, progress will be much slower,” Ure says. “Most Chinese users are content with 2G GSM, which you can use to send text messages and check some web sites.”

Even in a country where 3G is hugely popular, like Japan, usage patterns suggest there was no urgent need for such a change, points out Marukawa of Tokyo University. Ultimately, whether it’s the adoption of a home-grown telecom standard or an upgrade to an entirely new, higher level of service, he says, the challenge for providers — and governments — remains the same: Providing services that customer actually need, and want.