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China Mobile, the country’s largest mobile phone operator, has inked a long-anticipated deal with Apple to offer iPhones on the world’s largest network, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing sources familiar with the matter.
The rollout is expected to start later this month, around the time of a Dec. 18 China Mobile conference in Guangzhou in southern China.
China Mobile is the world’s largest mobile carrier by users, with more than 700 million subscribers.
No confirmation of the report was available, and China Mobile only said in a brief statement that negotiations with Apple have been “in progress.”
However, if confirmed, the move marks a major advance in Apple’s efforts to drive sales in China, the world’s biggest mobile market.
The country of 1.3 billion is Apple’s largest market outside the United States, but Apple has lost ground in the smartphone market to rivals such as Samsung and Xiaomi, which offer cheaper phones.
Apple executives have been actively courting the mobile carrier for years — Apple CEO Tim Cook met China Mobile chairman Xi Guohua in July to discuss opening the network to Apple.
Currently, iPhone users in China either subscribe to smaller carriers like China Unicom or China Telecom, or they use unlocked phones, which means using China Mobile’s own 3G standard, which many believe has inferior network service.
Apple cleared a key regulatory hurdle in September, when it was given permission from Chinese regulators to run the iPhone on China Mobile’s network.
The news of an agreement between the tech giants comes a day after China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued 4G licenses using TD-LTE technology to China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom in another move that had been widely anticipated.
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