Several decades ago, Deng Xiaoping, the de facto leader of China, proposed the political idea of “One country, two systems”, to offer a feasible solution for governing China after its reunification. The principle is that Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan can keep their own legal, political and economic systems, while standing under the umbrella of China. Although there is still debate going on, this idea has already been implemented in Hong Kong and Macau. But, this article is not about the politics, it is about telecommunications. While one country still means China, three systems in this article denote three different 3G mobile communication standards.

Long story short, there are three different 3G mobile networks in China. If you are going to China, and do not want to buy a new smartphone there, this article can help you.

There are three major telecom operators in China. If we make a list of them, sorted with revenue, the list would look like this:

  • China Mobile
  • China Telecom
  • China Unicom

The stories of the three operators are complicated. Quite a few mergers and acquisitions, which happened in the last decades, reshaped the structures of these three companies. There will be another article telling those stories. In this article, we will focus on their 3G networks.

The three different networks they are using, sorted by their popularities worldwide, are like follows:

  • CDMA-2000

I won’t go to technical details of these three technologies. But there are reasons for this ranking, not only commercial reasons but technical reasons. WCDMA is originated from Europe and widely deployed across the world; CDMA-2000 is developed in the USA and mainly deployed in North America; TD-SCDMA is an almost native product (I will tell you why I wrote almost) of China and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Now comes the tricky part, these two lists do not really match each other. In fact, the operator-technology list looks like:

  • China Mobile – TD-SCDMA
  • China Telecom – CDMA-2000
  • China Unicom – WCDMA

As shown in this list, the smallest operator is using the most popular technology and the largest one is using the least popular technology. The story behind is quite interesting.

A few years ago, when mobile phones were still used for making phone calls, the Chinese government decided to produce a new 3G standard. The purpose was national security and also avoiding paying large amount of patent fee to companies like Qualcomm. The original proposal of TD-SCDMA was provided by Datang Telecom. Datang Telecom is the number three mobile equipment vendor in China, but far less well known than the first two, Huawei and ZTE. As a state-owned enterprise, it soon got the support from the Department of Posts and Telecommunications in 1998. One year later, an application of using TD-SCDMA as the third 3G standards was sent to the International Telecommunication Union and this application was approved later.

However, is TD-SCDMA really from China? Sadly, no. Before the Datang proposal, Siemens AG developed a technology called TD-CDMA, without the “S” for “synchronous” comparing to Datang’s TD-SCDMA. But they could not manage to commercialize this technology due to the fact that European Union had made a decision that all its member state will use WCDMA technology, which is also from Europe. Hence, Siemens sold this technology to Datang. With some dressing-up, Datang produced the first Chinese communication standard.

Even commercially, TD-SCDMA cannot be considered as a success. China Mobile, who is using TD-SCDMA, has more than 40% of the market share in the 3G market, which looks quite impressive. However, before 3G, the market share of China Mobile was over 70%. Although TD-SCDMA made the best effort to get rid of the patent fees and thus lowered the cost of mobile handset, they faced another problem. All the smartphones, which can use TD-SCDMA is not compatible with any other network in another country. That means, the smartphone manufacturers must build a production line, specifically for China, or more specifically, for China Mobile. Many of the manufacturers were not willing to do that. One example is that before iPhone 5, no product from Apple supported TD-SCDMA.

On the other hand, the smallest operator China Unicom, is doing well with WCDMA. They were the first one to establish a connection with Apple and get iPhone to China. The reason was simple. Apple did not have to modify their design. China Telecom is relatively new to the mobile industry, although they own the majority of the fixed network. Even though they started much later than the other two, now they still managed to get a market share big enough to challenge China Mobile. Technology played a big role in this competition.

For international travelers, before a universal smartphone is invented, a careful choice must be made, if you want to keep using your phone to get emails in China. Here are some tips:

If you live in one of the member states of the European Union, it is rather simple. Your only choice would be China Unicom, since WCDMA is the unanimous solution inside EU.

If you are from the USA, you have two different situations. If your network provider is either AT&T or Telekom, you should stick with WCDMA and China Unicom. Otherwise, if you are using Sprint or Verizon, China Telecom should be your choice.

If you’re none of the above and have no idea what technology you are using, you can still check it in your phone. For Android devices, go to Settings -> About phone -> Status. If the “mobile network type” is UMTS, HSPA, HSDPA or HSPA+, then you have a WCDMA phone. If it is EV-DO, then your phone uses CDMA2000.

Are these tips useful for you? If you are not the geek type and don’t like acronyms, there is a simple and much more effective solution. Just buy a new smartphone in China, they can be unbelievably cheap.