Chinese operators – well, two of them anyway – have bowed to the inevitable and are striking deals with popular messaging service WeChat.
The pathbreaker is China Unicom, which is to announce a partnership in Guangzhou this afternoon.
China Telecom is also said to be prepping a service which would give users 2GB of WeChat and Sina weibo data for just 6 yuan (0.98) a month.
Both partnerships will take place in Guangdong, the wealthy southern province, and have a flavour of ‘suck it and see’ as operators test out the cooperative approach to dealing with OTT.
Missing from the party is China Mobile, which early this year skirmished with Tencent, the company behind WeChat, complaining the service was using up valuable network resources.
Rumours swirled that WeChat would be forced to charge its 300m users but, as this blog pointed out at the time, it was only China Mobile that had a problem, thanks to its under-powered 3G network. Plus it was unlikely that a newly-installed government would make itself so gratuitously unpopular.
The washup of that imbroglio is that the two smaller operators have gone over to the ‘enemy’ while China Mobile is on its own.
According to Sohu IT, China Unicom is offering WeChat Wo for WeChat data at 15 yuan a month for those already with a minimum 36-yuan monthly package. (Wo is Unicom’s mobile data service.)
WeChat Wo will come with HD photos and HD movies, some free games, and the ability to support Unicom’s Wo payment feature. If all goes well in Guangdong, Unicom is hoping for quick expansion into other southern provinces such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian.
For the operator, this is an important ‘ice-breaker’ in forging cooperation with OTT players, a Unicom source told Sohu IT. For Tencent, it is a chance to grow the business with a strong partner with a deep channel. Tencent chief Pony Ma reportedly played a direct role in the negotiations.
Such OTT partnerships are new to mainland China, but they’ve been in the Hong Kong market since last year. Hutchison launched a WhatsApp bundle last September, while PCCW has been selling a WeChat package since February.
Meanwhile, China Mobile is trying to go it alone with messaging app Fetion and Skype-like voice application Jego. Embarrassingly it had to pull Jego from the domestic market just after launch because mobile VoIP is still illegal in China.
Yet this won't trouble China Mobile. It's still working the old playbook, focusing on networks, not apps. At year-end, while Telecom and Unicom are planning their LTE networks, it will be racking up 4G subs.