Chalk up another one to the iPhone. China Unicom, the perennial bridesmaid of Chinese telecoms, is now outselling its two rivals in 3G.
It took 40% of all 3G adds in April and has snared 11.8m 3G customers to date this year, compared to 11m for China Mobile and 9.3m for China Telecom.
This would be the first time Unicom has outscored China Mobile in anything. The fact that it’s getting the biggest part of the juiciest chunk of the market means that this time the world’s biggest mobile operator and the world’s hottest tech company will actually strike a deal.
It helps, too, that both Apple and China Mobile have new chiefs – Tim Cook and Xi Guohua. On previous occasion Steve Jobs and Wang Jianzhou butted heads but could never come to terms.
China Mobile’s use of TD-SCDMA has been one of the big sticking points, but the arrival of commercial TD-LTE next year is likely to help smooth the path.
In its just-issued 2011 result, Unicom reported mobile service revenue up 42%, and 3G as a proportion of total revenue up from 24% to 43%. Its 3G ARPU is 93.9 yuan ($14.77), compared with 34.9 yuan for 2G.
China Mobile doesn’t break out its ARPU numbers, but its blended ARPU is 71 yuan. Right now just 62m of its 672m customers use 3G, so there's a lot of upside. But not if they churn to its competitors. It needs the iPhone.