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China speeds past Europe on 4G mobile rollout

China has overtaken Europe by building hundreds of thousands of masts to carry superfast 4G mobile signals and Western executives warn it will pull further ahead with its plans to more than double construction this year.

While the take-up of 4G services in China lags behind the rollout of base stations – given services only became commercially available last month – the scale of the infrastructure building underlines the country's ambitions .

(Read more: Apple takes a fresh bite into China's market)

China Mobile became the country's first 4G operator in December last year and it built about 200,000 base stations in advance of the launch. That is already more than are deployed Europewide, according to analysts at HSBC and CCS Insight. China Mobile's network covers as many as 500 million people in the important cities on the country's east coast.

Ten customers received signed iPhones from both Apple CEO Tim Cook and China Mobile Chairman Xi Guohua.
CNBC
Ten customers received signed iPhones from both Apple CEO Tim Cook and China Mobile Chairman Xi Guohua.

China Telecom and China Unicom are also building smaller 4G networks. Up to 1 million 4G masts could be built in China by the end of 2014, according to equipment makers.

At last month's annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, executives from European mobile operators feared that the combination of regulatory constraints and sluggish economic growth would curtail construction of 4G networks in the continent.

Also in Barcelona this week, Wei Zaisheng, finance director for ZTE, the Chinese state-owned equipment maker, said there could be as many as 1m 4G base stations in China by the year's end, from close to 300,000 today, as companies "speeded up construction".

(Read more: Apple-China Mobile deal a 'watershed' moment: Tim Cook)

China represented about 60 percent of the market for new 4G masts, he said. "China is leading 4G compared to Europe."

Three industry executives said they were expecting a second tender from China Mobile for about 500,000 base stations this year. Equipment-maker executives forecast that China Telecom would order up to 250,000 masts this year.

Neelie Kroes, Europe's digital commissioner, has also emphasised the need to accelerate 4G rollout, and has recently shifted the focus to developing the next stage of mobile networks with so-called "5G" technology.

Beijing has made telecoms a main national industry. Only a third of Chinese households have broadband internet connections, according to data from the brokerage CLSA, intensifying the urgency to rollout high-speed mobile services.

The US, South Korea and Japan lead the world in 4G deployment and usage with almost ubiquitous coverage, which is seen to have economic benefits as people work and access media swiftly while on the move.

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Chinese groups are also leading the development of networks based on a lesser used variant of 4G technology called TD LTE, which analysts say will give China the chance to claim an advantage in promoting a standard that had not been used much in the West, where FDD is the dominant 4G standard.

TD LTE technology is gaining momentum outside China, with the recent decision by Sprint to use the technology in its 4G network in the US.

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