Demand for mobile Internet is growing faster than industry can build 3G networks. Local governments have taken notice and put forward plans to speed up information development. A key part of their plans revolves around raising 3G network standards, but they are also encouraging the 3G-plus-WLAN model. Telecom companies have taken notice.
"3G and WLAN can together share the weight of information development," said Liu Hongqi, deputy chief engineer in China Unicom's national infrastructure laboratory. 3G networks provide a wider service area but slower data rates, while WLAN offers higher data rates but covers smaller areas. Integrating the two means consumers can take advantage of each network's strengths.
Earlier this month China Unicom launched its first wireless city project, in Tai'an, that works to integrate WLAN and WCDMA. China Mobile and China Telecom are also working on plans to combine WLAN with their respective 3G networks.
The project manager of China Mobile's telecommunications research department, Zhou Bo, laid out Mobile's WLAN strategy: "Over the long term (WLAN) will become an important complement to our cellular system. It will need to cover areas with dense data flow, and priority will be given to providing coverage in areas where TD and EDGE/GPRS needs are high."
But cell phone manufacturers that hope to take advantage of WLAN need to equip their handsets with more than just Wi-Fi.
China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology requires that all Wi-Fi-equipped handsets carry WAPI, a homegrown WLAN standard. The rule has hampered progress over the years -- the first iPhones in China did not have Wi-Fi at all -- but the ministry has eased up a bit lately, making it easier for foreign enterprises to install WAPI.
By the time iPhone 3GS launched in China, Apple had managed to equip it with WAPI in addition to Wi-Fi.