Apple to Sign China Mobile Deal?

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The question really is not “if,” but “when.” Leaked photos of a poster said to be from China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL), the largest wireless carrier in the world with 700 million subscribers, advertise the availability the new iPhone 5S and 5C from Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL). The main sticking point in the contract talks remains the availability of a 4G network.

We have noted before that China has awarded contracts worth $3.2 billion to several vendors, including Nokia Corp.’s (NYSE: NOK) NSN subsidiary, Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC), Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Huawei Technologies, and ZTE Corp. The government is thought to be prepared to approve China Mobile’s 4G network before the end of the year, and that, combined with the leaked poster photo, has sparked speculation that a deal between Apple and China Mobile could get signed as early as November.

An analyst from Barclays is cited in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post:

We see it as highly likely that an Apple-China Mobile partnership could be announced once 4G licences are issued in China and the timing on China Mobile’s commercial 4G service launch is clearer.

If there’s anything in this world that’s a safe bet, this is it. But the deal remains a matter of timing. The Chinese government has not yet licensed a 4G network, though it is apparently prepared to do so. China Mobile has awarded contracts to build out the network, but it won’t start until the license is received. None of Apple’s iPhones is compatible with China Mobile’s existing 3G network, so the Cupertino company has to wait. But it doesn’t look like it will be much longer.