Responsa: China Unicom and GPRS

Workers’ Stadium North Road
Hiding from the icy winds
0947 hrs.

Since NetNanny has seen fit to once again mark all TypePad blogs off limits, I am compelled to respond to comments with posts (and to once again wonder about hosting alternatives.

CU doth know GPRS…

Kevin Prest responds to my comment that “Unicom knows not GPRS” with the following:

You say “CU knoweth not GPRS”, but that’s simply not true. GPRS is available on China Unicom’s GSM network in all major cities (a quick Google search brings up this article, saying that GPRS was available in 259 cities as of December and further expansion was planned: http://www1.cei.gov.cn/ce/doc/cenlx/200712190613.htm ), and the company also offers EDGE services in many areas.

Kevin is right in that China Unicom has now upgraded to GPRS in 259 cities. I stand corrected, and happy to be so. Thanks, Kevin.

…but it hath serious experience issues

But all of this makes me wonder why my BlackBerry 8700 with an overseas SIM card can only find a GSM signal when it roams onto China Unicom’s network here in Beijing and not a GPRS signal. I’ve had to force-select China Mobile on the device or lose all data services the second it gloms onto a China Unicom signal.

My wife’s brand-spanking new RAZR2 V8 GPRS device – she’s a CU subscriber – is not getting onto a GPRS network at all anywhere in Beijing.

So CU may indeed know GPRS. But you wouldn’t know it from OUR day-to-day user experiences in China’s capital city. Whether they’ve got the hardware or not is irrelevant if the network can’t offer a consistent user experience on two GPRS devices from two major manufacturers.

Subsidize the Handsets

Kevin makes another interesting point:

Unicom are also a lot keener on the Western/Japanese style “subsidise the handsets to lock users in to long contracts” business model than China Mobile, so Apple’s revenue-sharing model isn’t as large a step for them.

I am far from being a China Mobile fanboy, but on this point I respectfully take issue. Both carriers are fairly far along with early experiments in subsidizing handsets in return for subscriber lock in, in particular for entry-level users. China Mobile, for example, has been offering the Motorola C139 or the Nokia 1100 as part of a basic entry package since 2005.

None of this, of course, addresses the larger question of whether Chinese people would be ready to put up with lock-in just to get a cheaper mobile phone. For the end of the market that would be buying an iPhone, that has yet to be proved. It is also interesting to note that the US is starting to sneak away from user lock-in.

I see China – and the U.S. – moving toward a hybrid system where you have the choice of Cheap Phone + Lock-in + higher rates or Expensive Phone + cheap rates. Once you’ve given consumers choice among devices – and in China we can choose among over 800, including hacked iPhones – it’s hard to take it away.

Especially when by taking it away you are also squeezing local manufacturers out of the home market.

Anyway, check out Kevin’s website, especially if you are into manga or anime. Very cool.