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China Mobile becomes world's biggest mobe operator

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China Mobile's half-year profits topped $9.6bn, making it the largest mobile operator in the world by customers and profits, and six times bigger than the nearest local competition.

That $9.6bn profit is based on revenue of almost $40bn, stomping all over the local competition and topping Vodafone's annual figure of $18.82bn. The local competition is compared with this pretty graph at Penn Olson, which shows that China Telecom only managed one-sixth of its rival's takings, while China Unicom lagged well behind with a profit of only $406m despite (or because of) having an exclusive on Apple's iPhone.

That exclusive is costing China Unicom a huge amount in handset subsidies. Unicom is the only company of the three Chinese operators to see a decline in profits in the first half of 2011, and that's despite increasing revenues more than 22 per cent. It seems much of the cash, $478m to be precise, went on subsidising 3G handsets – most of which will have been iPhones.

China Mobile makes about £6.68 in revenue from each user each month (ARPU), which compares badly to Vodafone UK, which rakes in an average of £21.70 from every prepaid customer (£37.10 from those with contracts). But if you compare this with Vodafone India's ARPU of £2.34, it looks far more healthy.

China's mobile industry is still expanding as penetration is still some way off saturation. Around 900 million mobile subscriptions serve a population around 1.3 billion, so there's still room for expansion within China.

Not that the operators are limiting their horizons to their home country. China Telecom has been talking about launching a UK MVNO aimed at Chinese people living abroad (400,000 of them in the UK, according to the company) and recently expanded its European operations to look specifically at acquiring Western companies.

China Mobile is state-owned, so its profits go to the Chinese government. And its profits are unlikely to fall any time soon, especially with Tim Cook (now Apple's CEO) seen dropping by for a visit to lend weight to the rumours that Unicom's exclusive won't last long and that China Mobile will be getting the next iPhone for its 4G network.

Competition has certainly driven the Chinese mobile industry, but it is not clear how, or if, that competition can be maintained with one player dominating the market to such a large extent. ®

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