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Apple nearing CDMA iPhone 4 deal with China Telecom

Speculation that Apple may expand its CDMA iPhone 4 launch globally beyond Verizon Wireless now has backing evidence indicating that a deal with China Telecom is nearing completion.

Analyst Brian White of Ticonderoga Securities forwarded mention in a note to clients of an online Chinese news site that has reported that the Changsha branch of China Telecom "has started accepting online pre-orders for the CDMA iPhone 4 at the starting price of RMB 5,800."

That translates to $880. The original source of the report, a Chinese language NetEase article, stated that China Telecom and Apple were currently working to negotiate the terms of the launch, saying it expected an announcement "very soon."

White noted that "it is unclear how pre-orders are available before an official announcement has been made by the two companies; however, the key takeaway is that the relationship between Apple and China Telecom is clearly moving in the right direction, and we believe that a deal will eventually be announced this year."

White also reported that two days ago, "an anonymous China Telecom employee posted on the Chinese version of Twitter called Microblog that 'CDMA iPhone 4 had made its first call in China,' indicating that China Telecom may be in the process of testing the CDMA iPhone on its network."

China Telecom is the country's third largest carrier, with 90.5 million wireless subscribers on its CDMA network, making it roughly the size of Verizon.

China Mobile and LTE

Apple is currently partnered with China Unicom, which has 149 million subscribers on its GSM network, 3.6 million of which pay for UMTS 3G access. The nation's (and world's) largest carrier, China Mobile, has more than 527 million subscribers, 3.9 million of which pay for 3G, although that network primarily uses China's home grown, TS-SCDMA network technology.

China Mobile's Chairman Wang Jianzhou claimed in January that Apple is working with his company to deploy a LTE version of the iPhone that can also support China Mobile's own version of LTE, known as TD-LTE.

Apple is expected to eventually build an LTE iPhone capable of roaming across new networks being built by both AT&T and Verizon in the US, but those plans are still a year or two away.

CDMA, HSPA+

This year, Apple appears to be initially focusing on its existing CDMA launch of iPhone 4, potentially adding not just China Telecom but also other CDMA carriers in India, broadening its reach with multiple carriers just as it has done in the US by adding Verizon.

While currently under attack by reports describing the Verizon launch as disappointing, that strategy is actually in line or ahead of the projections of most professional analysts, who predicted sales of just 8 to 10 million Verizon iPhones through the entire year. Stifel Nicolaus' Doug Reid stated that Apple would only net fewer than a million more phones in the US by partnering with Verizon.

Gene Munster of Pipper Jaffray issued one of the more liberal projection of Verizon iPhone sales, saying his firm modeled Apple selling 9 million iPhones through Verizon, mostly at the expense of AT&T, resulting in a net gain of just 2.5 million more iPhones. Estimates suggest Apple has already sold roughly a million CDMA iPhones in its first two weeks on the market.

At the same time, many customers say they are waiting to see what Apple will release this summer, with rumors of both a larger screen, faster iPhone 5 with support for AT&T's 4G HSPA+ and a smaller, cheaper version capable of being subsidized by carriers as a free phone with a contract.