Summary:

Another piece in Apple’s worldwide expansion looks like it might at long last be coming into view: the leading CDMA operator in China, China…

iPhone in China

Another piece in Apple’s worldwide expansion looks like it might at long last be coming into view: the leading CDMA operator in China, China Telecom, says that it will start to sell the iPhone 4S by the end of this month or early March.

The report, from the English-language China Daily, says that China Telecom released a statement this week that said it was beginning “preparatory work” to launch the iPhone 4S — the first time that China Telecom would offer one of Apple’s smartphones.

China Telecom has been talking of an iPhone launch for some time now, touting Apple’s work on a CDMA-based device even before the company launched its first non-UMTS handset with Verizon last year. It seems that the big holdup has been getting the right operating licenses for the device. There are three, and they have apparently now all been secured.

If China Telecom does indeed get the device in the next month, it will make it the third CDMA operator to carry the iPhone, after Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) and Sprint (NYSE: S) in the U.S.

Pricing details for the device have not been disclosed but given how iPhone-crazy the Chinese public appear to be, this will probably kick-off a price war for the device — although the carriers’ offerings will likely still come at a premium compared to the cheap knock-offs that one can buy in the country.

The race for 3G subscribers is actually quite close in China: At the moment, the only carrier with the official right to sell the iPhone on its network is China Unicom, the second-largest operator after China Mobile; China Telecom ranks third. Among those, China Unicom is the fastest-growing, thanks in part to the success of the iPhone. Among the three of them, China Mobile still has the most 3G subscribers, with 51.2 million; China Unicom has 40 million; China Telecom has 36.3 million.

The move to add China Telecom as a carrier partner will also make a big difference to Apple’s exposure in the country. China Daily, citing figures from Gartner, notes that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) currently is the fourth-largest smartphone vendor in the country, trailing behind Nokia (NYSE: NOK), Samsung and Huawei.

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