China Has Built 690,000 5G Base Stations to Change People’s Imagination About the Future

Alibaba Cloud
10 min readDec 10, 2020

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By Xiao Jian, Senior Strategy Director of Alibaba Cloud Research Center

Edited by Zhang Nan, Alibaba Cloud Research Center

Is the development of 5G slow? China and other nations started to build and deploy 5G technology in 2019. As of September 2020, China has built a total of 690,000 5G base stations nationwide, achieving the target set for 2020 ahead of schedule.

Is the development of 5G fast? It has been more than a year since commercial 5G services were made available in China and the rest of the world. However, we have not seen any substantial changes. What are the core technologies of 5G? Will 5G hasten the development of industrial applications and bring about opportunities?


In March 2020, China’s three major operators announced the collective purchase of main equipment for nearly 500,000 5G base stations. Subsequently, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in China required the three major operators to complete the 2020 construction target of 5G base stations in advance by the third quarter of 2020. On October 22, Wen Ku, Director of the Information and Communication Development Department of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said, “By the end of September, China enabled 690,000 5G base stations, meeting its target of 5G construction ahead of schedule.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting numerous public services on a large scale. “New Infrastructures” that feature 5G, cloud computing, big data, AI, Industrial Internet, and IoT are becoming important carriers of the social economy. In the New Infrastructure, 5G is the most fundamental communication infrastructure. The biggest difference between 5G and 4G is that 5G is more than a service of mobile Internet for individual clients. It has widely entered the fields of industries and business. However, only when the commercial closed-loop of 5G is completed can we enjoy the services provided by 5G.

A Brief Introduction to 5G Technology

5G is the fifth generation of wireless communication technology. Compared with 4G, 5G mainly focuses on three aspects, high speed, low latency, and large connections. The implementation of 5G in the three aspects shows its different features.

1. High Speed (eMBB)

Although the wireless download rate of 5G in the experimental environment (single-point test in a no-load network) can reach 2,000 to 4000 Mbps (based on the test results in China, Japan, the UK, India, and Italy), the download rates on real-world networks are not as fast. South Korea and the United States were the first two countries in the world to use commercial 5G networks. South Korea had more than four million 5G users by the end of 2019. According to the tests on real-world networks, the 5G download rate is about 300 to 600 Mbps, nearly 2 to 4 times faster than 4G. The following figure shows the performance comparison between 4G and 5G.

Similar to 4G, 5G is equipped with rate superposition technology (also called carrier aggregation) for continuous rate upgrades. Therefore, the download rate of 5G can be faster, which depends entirely on the requirements of business scenarios and the investment of operators.

eMBB: Enhanced Mobile Broadband

2. Low Latency (uRLLC)

5G enables ultra-reliable and low-latency communications with latency lower than 1 ms. It is mainly aimed at vertical industries with high requirements on low latency and reliability, such as Internet of Vehicles (IoV) and industrial control. Enterprises, including Siemens and Bosch, have participated in the formulation of the 5G standard. They put forward many scenarios in factory production areas and corresponding demands for 5G technologies, such as motion control, control equipment interconnection, mobile production equipment, and AR. However, currently, as the factory’s production line has generally low demands for the bandwidth, latency, and reliability of wireless networks, the implementation of “low latency” will still take a long time.

uRLLC: Ultra-Reliable and Low-Latency Communication

3. Large Connections (mMTC)

5G mMTC is mainly designed for the massive IoT scenarios in the future with low requirements for low power consumption, bandwidth, cost, and latency. However, considering the current 5G standard formulation, mMTC is the most controversial aspect without 5G standards yet. 5G is revolutionary, considering how it can be applied in more scenarios and has more complex technologies. It is also more inclusive. Currently, it seems that the 5G IoT standard of the R16 version of 5G standards will incorporate the existing NB-IoT/eMTC standard.

In business scenarios, tens of thousands of terminals can be connected to a single NB-IoT/eMTC base station. However, the utilization rate of NB-IoT base stations in China is too low, as each of them is accessed only by hundreds of terminals. The 5G mMTC is designed for large-capacity access of one million terminals per square kilometer. China’s development of 5G technology is ahead of the market, so the wide and large-scale application of mMTC is expected to be achieved much later. The Notice on Further Promoting the Comprehensive Development of Mobile IoTs, issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in May 2020, also proves this point. The Notice states that by the end of 2020, NB-IoT networks must generally cover the main urban areas of cities above the county level. In the future, the connection and carrying of the IoT will still depend on the NB-IoT base station, while 5G will be used to meet the demands of high-speed and low-latency scenarios.

mMTC: Massive Machine Type Communication
NB-IoT: Narrowband Internet of Things

The Impact of 5G on the Industry

Generally speaking, 5G means wider wireless bandwidth, lower latency, and more connections. While actively focusing on the news of 5G, people should avoid being misled by 5G promotions. As the concept of “New Infrastructures” becomes a hot topic, many kinds of 5G promotions are emerging in the market. However, besides the consumer Internet, the impact of 5G technology on the industry in the future is still progressing step-by-step.

Consumer Internet

5G has greatly contributed to the rapid popularization of high definition (HD), such as 4K and 8K, and of performing e-commerce and social activities through videos. The development of 5G wireless bandwidth will accelerate the fast rate upgrade of wired fiber-optic transmission bandwidth and home access bandwidth. China Telecom announced in 2019 that it would fully deploy an all-optical network 2.0. China has entered an era when both wired and wireless home access bandwidths have reached the gigabit level. In turn, the upgraded wired and wireless bandwidths further accelerate the popularization of 4K/8K HD content. For example, Taobao and Tmall have already launched 5G plus 4K live streaming. HD live streaming will become the standard. For another example, at the end of April 2020, Bilibili announced the initiative of an upgrade plan for 4K HD content, which will fully improve the video clarity. In the future, e-commerce live streaming and social activities will be more dependent on videos, and the form of high-definition and convenient short videos will become increasingly popular.

Internet video service providers, such as Youku, iQIYI, and Bilibili, will also use the 5G slicing technology in the future. With this technology, service providers can bind the video quality rating of HD content with the 5G network to ensure a better video viewing experience for VIP consumers.

In addition, the acceleration of network connection will stimulate the growth of the Mobile Cloud Market. The market will also bring mobile terminal computing power and video rendering to the cloud. Among them, the mobile cloud game business is expected to perform the migration faster. The HD and VR experience of various mobile games demand more support from powerful computing and bandwidth. It is difficult to promise consumers a better experience in the future by relying only on mobile terminal computing.

In general, the construction of 5G will accelerate the development of the consumer Internet, including the popularization of HD content, the expansion of video distribution, the application of AR navigation, and the gradual cloud migration of mobile terminal computing power.

Industrial Internet

5G has a positive effect on the development of industrial science and technology. However, the construction of a real closed-loop 5G service is expected to take a long time since it requires continuous observation.

The media and entertainment industry will be influenced the most. On the one hand, 5G promotes the development of HD and VR/AR technologies. On the other hand, 5G cameras will be quickly applied in TV stations. In the future, the immersion, interaction, and social experience of entertainment and news content will be strengthened. These goals will increase the requirements for computing power and platform capabilities of the media and entertainment industry. In addition, the low-latency feature of 5G will be positive to the development of IoV. The real-time interaction of in-car Internet navigation and entertainment will be greatly upgraded. At the same time, public security policing and wireless law enforcement will adopt more wireless intelligent terminals that are combined with video cameras. All of these will promote the far-reaching application of information in the field of police and government affairs.

However, at the same time, people should also be aware that the development and promotion of 5G applications still need further observation. For example, the development bottleneck of the VR/AR industry does not lie in the speed of wireless access., The intelligence in the industrial manufacturing field has not met the delay requirement of 1 ms. Most scenarios of telemedicine and distance education are based on optical fiber cables, and IoT access mostly depends on narrowband networks. Moreover, the utilization rate of the NB-IoT network that is constructed at a large scale in China is generally low. Besides, automatic driving is still hovering between the L2 and L3 stages, and vehicle-road coordination is still in its infancy. Therefore, the development of the industry still needs more time. The network construction of 5G will take at least 3 to 4 years to achieve full coverage.

Alibaba 5G: Research and Practice

Alibaba DAMO Academy formally established the XG laboratory in March 2020. The XG laboratory is committed to promoting research on next-generation technologies for network communication. Currently, it mainly focuses on the collaborative R&D of 5G technologies and applications.

Compared with basic 5G technologies, the 5G technologies and the ecology development on the application layer are relatively behind. Based on Alibaba’s rich application ecology, the XG laboratory will focus on collaborative innovation in 5G infrastructure technology and applications for scenarios, such as ultra-HD video, online office, AR/VR, Industrial Internet, intelligent logistics, and automatic driving. The laboratory will dig into the video encoding and decoding technology and network transmission protocols and formulate relevant standards that are suitable for these scenarios in the 5G era.

Cloud computing is one of the key factors that drive the implementation of 5G applications. Over the past decade, Alibaba has made a comprehensive layout and implemented large-scale applications in the key technologies of cloud computing networks. Covering high-performance networks, self-developed switches, intent-driven networks, programmable networks, and traffic scheduling, the layout and applications will provide the XG laboratory with sufficient technical reserves. In addition, Alibaba Cloud’s globally deployed cloud data centers, cloud networks, and edge nodes will provide high-performance, low-latency, and highly reliable computing and storage resources for massive 5G terminal devices. By doing so, Alibaba has provided favorable conditions for the implementation of 5G applications.


5G has made a leap in speed that is excellent in terms of capacity, latency, security, and user experience. However, the large-scale implementation of 5G in industries and the process of realizing a business close-loop will take more time.

As one of the technical leaders of the New Infrastructure, Alibaba actively tracks and studies the application scenarios and implementation pace of 5G in various industries. Then, it judges the impact and changes of 5G on the industry’s business and makes excellent technical and market reserves. In any case, technological progress and development, including those of 5G, will bring human society into a new era. Alibaba is ready to explore 5G and bring it into practice in all walks of life.

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