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China Mobile spaffs £4.4bn on 4G 'trial'... before it even has a licence

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China Mobile will build 200,000 LTE base stations, covering 500 million people and costing 41.7 billion yuan, despite the fact that 4G licences won't be awarded until the end of 2013.

The world's largest mobile operator is obviously confident it will get a 4G licence, though until it does the rollout is officially just a "trial". UK networks typically manage with around 18,000 sites, so as trials go, this is a big one, and one which will support the next iPhone whatever it takes.

China Mobile lost out in the 3G licences, and was forced to use the home-grown TD-SCDMA standard, which precludes support for handsets popular internationally, including Apple's iPhone. That's not stopped 15 million China Mobile customers sourcing their own Apple hardware and using it on the 2G network, making the lack of support all the more annoying for the operator.

China Mobile has repeatedly asked Apple for a TD-SCDMA variant, but Cupertino has always resisted the urge to fragment further - despite the lure of more than 700 million potential customers.

Reuters points out that only 13 per cent of those customers are on 3G, but whether that's because they're low-end customers (as Reuters suggests) or because of the lacklustre handset support, isn't clear.

Even the new network won't support existing iPhones, as it uses the Time Duplexed variant of LTE (TD-LTE) which sends and receives alternately over one channel rather than using separate frequencies, but TD-LTE is gaining ground internationally - so Apple support is almost certain.

But deploying 4G so rapidly, well before the licence is issued, is an admission that TD-SCDMA was a stupid idea, and that even China needs the economy of scale which international standardisation brings. ®

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