China Mobile, the world's largest wireless carrier, plans to introduce a new brand for mobile services Dec. 18, the Wall Street Journal reported Nov 21. The brand is widely expected to be Apple.
The two companies have been in talks about an iPhone for China Mobile for years, but China Mobile has been well behind U.S. carriers in offering 4G, and its 3G network is incompatible with the iPhone's technology. (Millions of consumers have still attached iPhones to the network, but they can only run at 2G speeds.)
"China Mobile executives have said iPhone subscriptions likely would come only after the company introduces its 4G platform. Chinese media, including Nanfang Daily, recently reported that China may issue 4G licenses next week," said the report.
Ericsson announced Nov. 19 that it has been selected by China Mobile to deploy LTE TDD technology in "15 key provinces in China [that are] home to 63 percent of China's population and include the top three provinces in terms of [gross domestic product]."
Ericsson said it will be the world's largest LTE TDD network deployment, and that the deployment has already begun.
In September, rumors of an imminent iPhone for China Mobile were furthered when China's Telecom Equipment Certification Center gave Apple the final license it needed for the iPhone to operate on the China Mobile network, the Journal reported Sept. 11.
The ability to sell the iPhone to China Mobile's 759 million subscribers (as of October) would position Apple for significant growth. In smartphone sales, Apple has fallen well behind competitor Samsung, which is the top-selling smartphone maker globally as well as in China—now the largest smartphone market in the world.
China is currently Apple's second-largest market, but it's expected to become its first. "I strongly believe that," Apple CEO Tim Cook told reporters in January during a trip to China, during which Cook is said to have met with executives at China Mobile.
Apple's market share during the third quarter dropped to 13 percent from 14 percent a year earlier, but the company's newest iPhones, the 5S and 5C, weren't available for the whole of the quarter, and all the major carriers reported receiving limited shipments of the more-popular iPhone 5S.
Supply constraints, and concerns over how quickly China Mobile's 4G network will be iPhone-ready, have caused Forbes contributor Chuck Jones to caution that reports of a Dec. 18 China Mobile iPhone introduction may be premature.
"One of the key questions is, if China Mobile and Apple were to announce their partnership, would the 200,000 TD-LTE base stations that it plans to have in place by the end of the year, which could handle 4 million active users, be enough for the initial iPhone demand," Jones wrote in a Nov. 22 post.
At least one analyst has forecast that potentially 10 percent of China Mobile's subscribers—nearly 76 million people—could be interested in an iPhone, according to Jones.
When such an announcement is made, Jones added, he expects Apple to have put aside "possible 3 [million] to 4 million iPhones to handle the initial surge."