Asia Briefing: China Mobile inks long-awaited iPhone deal

A worker cleans glass in front of an iPhone 5C advertisement at an Apple store in Kunming, Yunnan province. China Mobile has signed a deal with Apple to offer iPhones on its network. PHOTOGRAPH: WONG CAMPION/REUTERS

China's legion of iPhone fans was busy sending messages on the country's Twitter-style Weibo network last week, saying: "At last!"

China Mobile, the country's largest mobile operator, has inked a long-anticipated deal with the Cupertino, California-based Apple to offer iPhones on the world's largest network.

The rollout is expected to start later this month, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources close to the deal, and will coincide with a December 18th China Mobile conference in Guangzhou in southern China.

China Mobile is the world’s largest mobile carrier by users, with more than 700 million subscribers.

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No confirmation of the report was available, and China Mobile said in a brief statement that negotiations with Apple were “in progress” but, if confirmed, the move marks a major advance in Apple’s efforts to win sales in China, the world’s biggest mobile market.

The country of 1.3 billion is Apple’s largest market outside the United States, but Apple has lost ground in the smartphone market to rivals such as Samsung and Xiaomi which offer cheaper phones.

Apple executives have been actively courting the mobile carrier for years – Apple chief executive Tim Cook met China Mobile chairman Xi Guohua in July to discuss opening the network to Apple.

There has been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the issue, to the annoyance of consumers.

Currently, iPhone users either subscribe to the smaller carriers China Unicom or China Telecom, or they use unlocked phones, which means using China Mobile’s own 3G standard, which has inferior network service. Apple cleared a key regulatory hurdle in September, when it was given permission from Chinese regulators to run the iPhone on China Mobile’s network.

The news came a day after China’s ministry of industry and information technology issued 4G licenses to China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, another move that had been widely anticipated.