Oral History: China’s Quiet Telecoms Revolution

China’s telecoms revolution

During my trip to Australia over the recent National Day holiday, I had an experience at Pudong International Airport that I would never care to repeat, even though it has a happy ending. While I probably gained a few gray hairs in the process, the entire ordeal was also quite remarkable because it shows just how far telecommunications in China have advanced in just the last 2 decades.

I arrived at the airport 2 hours early for my flight to Melbourne, and was checking in when the agent said that something was wrong with my passport. For some reason, she said, her computer was giving a “reject” message each time she swiped through my passport.
After a few more tries with the same result, a colleague at the next counter told her to check my visa to make sure it was ok. “Um,” I said, beginning to feel uneasy, “I don’t think Americans need visas to go to Australia, do we?”

After some quick checking with the other agents and an Internet search, we determined that US citizens did in fact need visas to travel to Australia, even though such visas were easy to get. The only problem was that by now my flight was leaving in just over an hour, and I didn’t have the necessary visa to get onboard.

I was starting to think of back-up plans, when one agent said Americans could apply for visas online and get approved in just half an hour. So there was still hope, she said, even though it sounded like impossible mission to me. A couple of minutes later we found the right website, and I booted up the page on my Android smartphone using my China Mobile Internet connection.

As time ticked down, I calmly entered the required information one item at a time, starting with my name, followed by numerous questions about my background, passport and where I was going. Four screens and about 5 minutes later, I reached the last step in the process, which called for me to enter my credit card information.

I entered the number and expiry date and hit “enter”, only to have the screen quickly come back saying the card was rejected. That meant I had to start all over again, entering all the information once more. This time I entered another credit card number, which was accepted, followed by a message saying my visa had been approved.

By this time it was 45 minutes until my flight was set to leave and the check-in counter was empty except for a single agent, who was quietly waiting to see if I could succeed in my mission impossible. I told her I’d completed the process, and held my breath as she swiped the passport once more to see if would work. Miraculously, the computer gave its approval and I quickly rushed through passport control and the safety check, arriving a full 20 minutes before the flight was set to leave.

I can feel the anxiety again just writing about the experience, even though it’s been more than a week now. But the real miracle behind that experience was the huge advances in Chinese telecommunications over the last 20 years that made it all possible.

Such state-of-the-art telecoms networks and services would have been unthinkable just 15 years ago, and were still in the realm of fantasy when I first came to China in the 1980s. One of my first experiences at that time involved finding a pay phone to call my friend teaching in Beijing, after I showed up at the main Beijing railway station one day in May 1987 after a 36 hour ride from Guangzhou.

Anyone who lived in China during that time would know that pay phones were a rarity in those days, and working ones were even rarer. Almost as rare were the flimsy aluminum coins needed to make a call. I finally found a pay phone outside the station and called the hotel where my friend lived, prompting the operator to transfer me to an attendant on her floor. That attendant then walked down the hallway to her room, knocked on her door and brought her back to the phone, allowing me to finally complete the call.

Back in those days only high officials had direct phone lines in their homes, and some luckier other people might have phones that could be called by first passing through a switchboard operator. I can still remember only being able to call many of my friends by first calling to the guardhouse at the compounds where they lived, prompting the guard to run up to their apartments to see if they were home.

Calls back to my family in the US were equally complex back then, having to go through an international operator in a process that could sometimes take 15 or 20 minutes. Even long-distance calls in China were tricky, and I recall once having to go through a switchboard serving an entire small town in Guizhou because nobody had direct lines.

Then something remarkable happened in the 1990s, when China decided to spend billions of dollars upgrading its telecoms networks as part of a broader drive to quickly modernize its infrastructure. Many homes in major cities suddenly had access to fixed-line phone service in just a matter of years, and that was followed by mobile service that quickly found its way into even the smallest towns and villages.

Many of my foreign friends visiting China today are amazed at how good the telecoms coverage is here, with mobile signals often available in many urban and rural spots where one could never hope to find a signal in the west. I’ve been lucky enough to cover much of this telecoms revolution during more than a decade of reporting on the industry, watching as the country’s 3 carriers spent billions after billions of dollars to build some of the world’s most advanced and comprehensive networks. I’ve also witnessed the rapid rise of major new smartphone makers like Huawei, ZTE (HKEx: 763; Shenzhen: 000063) and Xiaomi, and watched as China became the world’s biggest mobile and Internet markets with 1.2 billion mobile subscribers and 600 million web surfers.

There are still some problems with China’s telecoms system, most notably its domination by 3 slow-moving state-owned behemoths. Beijing’s desire to develop new homegrown and often glitch-filed technologies is also a problem, since such technologies are often forced onto the big 3 telcos. But at the end of the day I can only marvel at what China has accomplished in such a short time, which ultimately saved my Australia trip this October and makes the China of today unrecognizable from the country I first visited nearly 3 decades ago.

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