U.S. vs. China in 5G: The Battle Isn’t Even Close

HONG KONG—By most measures, China is no longer just leading the U.S. when it comes to 5G. It is running away with the game. China has more 5G subscribers than the U.S., not just in total but per capita. It has more 5G smartphones for sale, and at lower prices, […]

HONG KONG—By most measures, China is no longer just leading the U.S. when it comes to 5G. It is running away with the game.

China has more 5G subscribers than the U.S., not just in total but per capita. It has more 5G smartphones for sale, and at lower prices, and it has more-widespread 5G coverage. Connections in China are, on average, faster than in the U.S., too.

When it comes to the things that are supposed to make 5G revolutionary, not just evolutionary—the apps made possible by the greater speeds and capacity—China’s front-runner status is less well-entrenched. For both countries, supposedly life-changing 5G applications, like self-driving cars, remote surgeries and automated factory floors, are still years away from widespread use. However, China’s lead in 5G-network rollouts could set it up to pull ahead in this respect as well.

Measured in terms of the full scope of benefits delivered to consumers and industry by 5G, Edison Lee, a Hong Kong-based telecom analyst at investment bank Jefferies, says he doesn’t think there’s much difference yet between the two countries. But, he says, “If you measure the progress in terms of how much the network has been built, China is far ahead.”

Where China has a definite edge is in the nuts and bolts of 5G. By year’s end, China will have an estimated 690,000 5G base stations—boxes that blast 5G signals to consumers—up and running across the country, compared with 50,000 in the U.S., according to Handel Jones, chief executive of International Business Strategies Inc., a research firm.

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