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China Unicom, Telecom to sell latest iPhone shortly after U.S. launch

A man uses a China Unicom public telephone in Beijing March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A man uses a China Unicom public telephone in Beijing March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Lee Chyen Yee

(Reuters) - Chinese telecom carriers China Unicom Hong Kong Ltd <0762.HK> and China Telecom Corp Ltd <0728.HK> will carry Apple Inc's newest iPhone models within days of their launch in Beijing next week as the U.S. technology giant tries to regain lost ground in its second-biggest market by releasing the phones faster.

Apple said earlier this week it was holding a satellite event in Beijing on September 11, the day after it is expected to unveil its latest iPhones in the United States. The September 11 event is the first time Apple will launch in China at almost the same time as in the United States, underscoring the importance of the Chinese smartphone market, the biggest in the world.

"There used to be a wait of a few months before Apple launches their latest products in China, but nowadays, China is too important a market for Apple and so it will be the first batch of markets to start selling the low and high-end iPhones next week," said a source at one of the telecom carriers, who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The high-end version is being called the iPhone 5S and the low-end version is the 5C.

China Unicom and China Telecom, the mainland's second and third-biggest mobile carriers respectively with a combined 266 million subscribers, are Apple's carrier partners in China, the world's biggest mobile phone market with more than 1 billion users.

China Mobile Ltd <0941.HK> is the only carrier without an iPhone contract, although it has been rumored in the market Apple and China Mobile may soon come to an agreement.

Apple's high-end 5S model may support a 4G technology called TD-LTE, which could pave the way for an agreement with China Mobile, which has more than double the subscribers of China Unicom and Telecom combined.

Officials with all three carriers declined to comment.

Days after the launch in Beijing, both of Apple's current Chinese carriers will accept pre-orders. It will take about a week for them to deliver the new iPhones to their customers, the source said.

News of the iPhone debuts leaked on Sina Corp's Weibo microblog, which briefly carried a pre-order advertisement for the latest models on China Telecom's verified page in Beijing. The post was quickly taken down, although word had already spread among bloggers, many of whom posted screenshots of the announcement.

"Have you prepared your cash to welcome the iPhone 5S and 5C? I'm looking forward to it," said a Sina microblogger.

Over the past few quarters, Apple's China market share has dwindled due to stiff competition from global rivals like Samsung Electronics Co Ltd <005930.KS> and domestic players selling phones that cost a fraction of the iPhone.

Its second-quarter market share slipped to 5 percent and was ranked No.7, trailing Samsung, Lenovo Group Ltd <0992.HK>, Yulong Computer, ZTE Corp <0763.HK> <000063.SZ>, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and Xiaomi, according to research firm Canalys. Apple's iPhones had a market share of 8 percent, making it the No.5 vendor, in the first quarter, Canalys said.

"It's a very good direction that Apple is launching its latest model so soon in China when its brand attraction is on the decline," said Nicole Peng, an analyst at Canalys. "It is a sign that they value the Chinese consumers."

In another sign that its Chinese sales were faltering, Apple's greater China revenue for its fiscal quarter ending June plunged 43 percent from the previous period and 14 percent from the same quarter last year to around $5 billion.

(Reporting by Lee Chyen Yee in SINGAPORE; Additional reporting by Paul Carsten in BEIJING; Editing by Matt Driskill)

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