China Mobile announces major LTE push ahead of rumored iPhone launch

china mobile sign

China Mobile announced today that it’s going to be spending a staggering $7 billion on its LTE network this year, setting the stage for what could be a late iPhone 5 launch. The carrier’s current network standard doesn’t properly support the popular popular handset.

In fact, China Mobile—the largest wireless provider in the world by subscriber base—is one of the few remaining major carriers in the world that doesn’t offer Apple’s smartphone. But recent chatter indicates that there’s a good chance that could change this year…

The Wall Street Journal reports:

“China Mobile Ltd. 0941.HK +0.24% is plowing almost $7 billion this year into building its new fourth-generation network, as the world’s largest telecommunications carrier strives to retain its supremacy atop China’s telecom market.

The move disclosed Thursday amounts to a signal to handset makers like Apple Inc.,AAPL +1.01% carriers like Japan’s Softbank Corp. 9984.TO 0.00% and equipment makers like Sweden’s EricssonERIC-B.SK +2.39% and China’s Huawei Technologies Co. that the world’s No. 1 mobile-telecom carrier by subscribers is throwing considerable weight behind its push to offer faster data speeds to customers.”

Despite the fact that China Mobile is by far the country’s largest carrier, it’s definitely starting to feel the effects of its aging, TD-CDMA network. In a rush to get the latest touchscreen smartphones, consumers have been increasingly looking to its competitors.

So it’s spending big money this year to roll out its TD-LTE 4G network, which it’s hoping—pending approval by the Chinese government— to launch by the end of 2013. It’s counting on the news to attract the attention of both customers, and handset makers like Apple.

Long running rumors of a China Mobile-Apple partnership were rekindled earlier this year when Tim Cook met with the carrier’s CEO Xi Guohua while in China. But today, speaking with The Journal, Chief Executive Li Yue said that no progress has been made yet.

Still, many analysts remain convinced that we’ll see an iPhone on the carrier this year, as it would give Apple access to more than 700M new subscribers. It would also give it a much needed boost in the country, where it is getting badly beat by its Android competitors.