China Mobile, a state-owned corporation as well as China’s largest telecommunications company, has announced the result of its tender process as the company sought the newest 5G modules for year 2021 – 2022. A total of 302,000 units were required.
Started in March, it marks the largest ever tender process undertaken by a national mobile operator, and Qualcomm has emerged as the largest winner of the process, while MediaTek won the smallest share. Most significantly, the Chinese mobile chipset maker Unisoc comes closely behind Qualcomm, emerging as the second largest winner.
According to Chinese media, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55 chips have made up approximately 50% of the 5G modules adopted in the tender. Unisoc, a subsidiary of the gigantic conglomerate Tsinghua Group recently facing bankruptcy, made up 42% of the modules with the V510, its first 5G modems. MediaTek’s M70 chips , meanwhile, were only used in 8% of the products. Interestingly, TSMC is the biggest beneficiary of the outcome, since both M70 and X55 use the Taiwanese foundry’s 7nm process, while V510 uses TSMC’s 12nm node.
Alongside Huawei, Unisoc has emerged as the only Chinese company able to design 5G chips. As early as 2019, Huawei already released the world’s first 5G modem, Balong 5000, that supports both standalone and non-standalone networks. Under US sanctions though, Huawei’s chip development has become stalled, relying on its dwindling stockpile and unable to support non-Huawei 5G base stations.
That inevitably made Unisoc the sole Chinese company able to supply 5G chips, thus becoming the most likely candidate to fill in the shoes of Huawei/HiSilicon as China’s national chip champion. In fact, the latest move of China Mobile hints that China’s industrial policy apparatus is already ticking toward that direction, as state-owned corporations are often the first in line to support government-designated industrial champions.