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Apple said to ink deal with China Mobile, adding 760 million potential iPhone customers

'We are still negotiating,' says China Mobile. 'It's a done deal,' say leaky insiders

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Apple has reportedly signed a deal with the world's largest mobile phone service provider, China Mobile, although a conflicting report says that the telco giant is "still negotiating" with Cupertino.

The original report comes from The Wall Street Journal, citing that ever-loquacious "person familiar with the situation."

A China Mobile spokeswoman, however, told Reuters that "We are still negotiating with Apple, but for now we have nothing new to announce."

Our experience with such leaks and denials leads us to believe that the deal is as well as done, but that a few details still need to be worked out before the grand co-announcement will be made. We could be wrong, of course, but we're willing to stick our necks out and say that an agreement to make Apple's handsets available to China Mobile's vast customer base is a done deal.

And a massive customer base it is. China Mobile reports on its website that as of October 31 of this year it had 759.3 million customers, and as of this year's third quarter of it had operating revenues of 159.9bn yuan renminbi ($26.3bn). Compare those numbers with the largest US mobile provider, Verizon Wireless, which counts "101.2 million retail connections," and reported operating revenues of $30.3bn in Q3 2013.

Those revenue figures certainly indicate that Verizon Wireless has a much healthier average revenue per account (ARPA) than does its Chinese counterpart – nearly $156 per month as of last quarter, in fact. Undoubtedly, China Mobile believes it can fatten up its ARPA with Apple's help in capturing a heftier slice of the lucrative smartphone market.

The deal would also be a great opportunity for Cook & Co., as it has as yet failed to break off a significant chunk of the Chinese smartphone market, where Samsung is the dominant player and cheapo Android phones proliferate.

It could be argued that China Mobile's low ARPA might indicate that there is a relatively small percentage of their customers who might pop for a pricey bit of Cupertinian kit. That may well be the case, but when your entire subscriber base is so humongous, the possibility of luring even a portion of them into the iPhone fold is a great money-making opportunity.

And Apple's CEO wants those bucks. Speaking with analysts and reporters after announcing Apple's most recent financial results, Cook expressed hope that China could provide a boost in his company's slowing growth. "We had a pretty good quarter in China," he said. "We obviously want to do better."

iPhone sales were up 25 per cent year-on-year, he noted, but that was from a rather small base in the previous year. There's still quite a bit of room for growth in a market that is not as saturated with smartphones as is, say, the EU or the US, and one that has a rapidly growing middle class eager to pocket some show-off shiny-shiny.

When the iPhone 5s and 5c first went on sale this September 20, Apple demonstrated the importance of the Chinese market by making the launch the first time that China was included in the first wave of countries in which the handsets were made available.

If China Mobile is indeed onboard – and the folks speaking with the WSJ said the announcement is expected to be made during a China Mobile conference in Guangzhou on December 18 – that recognition may have helped Apple break into the biggest operator not only in the Middle Kingdom, but in the world. ®

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