BEIJING — China Unicom said Tuesday it has moved closer to a deal with US hi-tech giant Apple to become the first company authorised to sell the iPhone in the world's largest mobile market.
"We have made progress but there are still some problems to be resolved," said a Unicom spokesman.
"Both sides have their own timeframe for an agreement but essentially it depends on the practical progress of the negotiations," he said.
Unicom, one of the nation's three major telecoms operators, started iPhone negotiations with Apple after the Chinese government issued third-generation (3G) mobile phone licences in January, he said.
The company's comments came after the state-run Shanghai Securities News on Tuesday cited unnamed sources as saying the company has won the right to be the sole supplier of iPhone 3G handsets in China for three years.
Third generation telecom services are based on technology that permits transmission of images and video at high speed.
Since Apple launched its iPhone, speculation has been rife about who would be given the right to distribute it in China, which had 687 million mobile phone users at the end of May, according to government data.
The interest appears to be there, with prices in a thriving black market in China set as high as nearly 5,000 yuan for each iPhone, the report said.
If the deal is confirmed, it would mean Apple has dropped China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone network operator, which has been in similar talks with the US company for years.
Unicom is expected to start selling the iconic phones in China at the end of September at a price of no more than 3,000 yuan (440 dollars), said sources familiar with the matter, according to the report.
In its deal with Apple, it has guaranteed to sell up to two million units a year with sales worth no less than five billion yuan, the sources were quoted as saying.
China Unicom, which had 140 million mobile subscribers by June, expects to attract high-end users with the iPhone to turn around weak performance in competition with arch rivals China Mobile and China Telecom, the report said.
Analysts said the deal, if reached, could help Unicom gain an upper hand in the country's burgeoning 3G market, which gives an unprecedentedly important role to Internet experience in mobile services.
"iPhone provides strong online experience, which is quite appealing to users," said Dai Chunrong, a Beijing-based analyst with CITIC Securities.
"The competition structure in the 3G era will certainly be reshuffled," she said.
In order to secure the deal, China Unicom has agreed to, among other things, allow Apple to pre-install its online software shop on the iPhone, a condition China Mobile would not accept, according to the Shanghai Securities News.
China Mobile, which had 493 million subscribers by the end of June, is developing handsets similar to iPhone with firms including Chinese computer maker Lenovo, previous media reports said.
Apple declined to comment when contacted by AFP on Tuesday.
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