Apple close to striking landmark iPhone deal with China Mobile

china mobile sign

Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty was visiting Hong Kong and Taiwan recently. She is now back from China with some interesting Apple news. Tim Cook & Co., she wrote in her note to clients, may be close to striking an iPhone distribution agreement with China Mobile, the world’s top wireless carrier by revenue and subscribers.

Specifically, Huberty wrote that “TD-LTE licenses, and related phone launches, are expected by year-end,” in her note to clients. China Mobile debuted small-scale TD-LTE network in 2010 and last year expanded coverage to select large cities. In case you were wondering, TD-LTE is a variant of the fourth-generation Long Term Evolution radio technology, also known as LTE…

China-only TD-LTE is incompatible with current iPhones so Apple would need to use latest world-mode wireless chips (Qualcomm has one!) in the next iPhone if wants to sell its iPhone to China Mobile customers.

As Philip Elmer-DeWitt of Fortune notes, the development strongly suggests that a contract with China Mobile could be signed before the end of the year. DigiTimes, the Taiwanese industry publication, separately reported Wednesday that China Mobile will start bidding for 200,000 TD-LTE base stations in a hundred Chinese cities this month.

China Mobile, by the way, has more than 700 million subscribers. The carrier has promised to carry out LD-LTE trials this year and Apple still continues to court China Mobile.

As my colleague Ed told you yesterday, Huberty also wrote that production of “multiple new iPhone models” will commence in June or July, in time for a rumored September launch of a new iPhone.

This echoes recent various reports from various other sources, including KGI Securities which sees Apple’s iOS hardware refreshes around Fall rather than during summer.

Also noteworthy, Reuters said today that Apple’s contract manufacturer Pegatron, which expects declining second-quarter sales amid slowing demand for iPad mini and other consumer electronics, is now hiring 40,000 workers.

The bolstering is thought to indicate that Pegatron is getting ready to assemble a rumored inexpensive iPhone model targeted at cash-strapped buyers in emerging markets who mostly buy off-contract unsubsidized devices.