Chinese officials have insisted that the country will have a third-generation mobile network up and running by the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
According to the Xinhua news agency, Xu Qin of the National Development and Reform Commission's hi-tech industrial department said late last week that the country would "observe our commitment to the International Olympic Committee and provide 3G service in cities where Olympic games are held".
The country is currently trialling its own variant of 3G, a standard called TD-SCDMA, among 20,000 users across several Chinese cities. However, the most common incarnation of 3G in the rest of the world is WCDMA, and analysts say China's potential adoption of a national standard could hamper mobile users who visit the country.
"From a practical point of view, right now the big question is roaming," said Freeform Dynamics' Dale Vile on Monday. "How much roaming is there into and out of China? There's a significant amount of that around the edges but in terms of the core market it's probably less of a factor than for users in Western Europe and the USA, where people are roaming across borders on a continuous basis."
The Chinese market is so huge that it does not need to think beyond itself, Vile suggested, but handset manufacturers outside China would have to start making provisions for TD-SCDMA interoperability now if there was any chance of devices supporting the standard by 2008.
Last Wednesday, TD-SCDMA Forum secretary general Dr Jin Wang said TD-SCDMA development was "at the final preparatory stage prior to commercial deployment".
"Experiences and lessons from [the WCDMA-based UMTS standard used in Europe] will further shorten the learning curve of TD-SCDMA, enabling both technologies to address the Chinese market demand simultaneously with respective advantages after licences are granted," Dr Jin continued, before predicting that, "as both TD-SCDMA and UMTS will evolve to the LTE (Long Term Evolution) platform, the key technologies in both standards will converge."
LTE is the upgrade path that is intended to evolve existing 3G technology into 4G, although exactly what 4G might be is not yet clearly defined.
3G is not the only technology to be corralled into a proprietary standard in China. At the end of October, the nascent mobile broadcast TV industry there was ordered by the Chinese Government to adopt the STiMi standard, developed by researchers at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. The rest of the world is busy developing other technologies, such as DAB-IP, DVB-H and MediaFLO.
Interestingly, Xinhua reports Xu as saying 4G would face stiff competition in the audiovisual market from mobile broadcast TV — presumably STiMi-based.
China's approach to technological standards does have several advantages. It would not have to pay out billions in royalties, and would be providing significant support to its own industries.