China has opened up its mobile broadband market after granting 4G licences to the country's three main telecom companies, raising hopes that Apple will soon sign a distribution deal with the world's biggest mobile operator by subscribers.
China's mobile carriers have already embarked on an aggressive expansion of 4G networks under trial licences, prompted by a government that has identified the rapid adoption of superfast internet technology as crucial to economic and social development.
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But the official sign off for 4G in the world's largest telecoms market will mean a windfall for overseas technology companies such as Apple, which will finally be able to offer its latest iPhones on China Mobile's networks.
China Mobile, the world's largest mobile company by subscribers, has long operated a 3G standard that was not compatible with the iPhone. As a result, China Mobile never signed a formal distribution agreement with Apple. The latest iPhone 5s and 5c models, however, are compatible with the new network.
The official licences, issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on Wednesday, are for a homegrown standard for rapid mobile internet connections called TD-LTE, rather than its more popular international rival, FDD-LTE.
The ministry did not specify how much the three state-controlled companies would have to pay for the licences, if anything, which is in stark contrast to the vast sums typically paid for mobile spectrum by Western mobile groups.