March 15, 2010 / 9:12 AM / 7 years ago

Investors seek signs of China Mobile 3G commitment

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China Mobile's 3G outlook will take center stage this week as China's three telecoms carriers begin to kick off quarterly results, with market focus on whether the nation's dominant player will turn up the volume in its low-key 3G roll-out.

China Mobile and its two rivals, China Unicom and China Telecom, spent $21 billion building out third generation (3G) mobile networks last year, following the long-awaited but much-delayed awarding of 3G licenses.

The trio signed up a combined 10 million 3G subscribers by the end of last year, with China Mobile accounting for about a third of those -- well below its overall position with a dominant 72 percent of China's mobile market.

Analysts will look to see whether China Mobile will get more serious about its 3G network, based on an untested homegrown technology called TD-SCDMA thrust upon it by Beijing.

"They probably need to do more to drive 3G growth," said BOC International analyst Allan Ng.

"They need to give more incentives for handset suppliers to come up with better products. Technically, it takes some time to sort things out. But if there are enough people working on it, things can move faster."

China Mobile was a darling of investors for years, enticing them with its dominant position in the world's biggest mobile market where total subscribers now number more than 700 million.

TEPID EARNINGS

But the company's growth has slowed to a crawl in recent quarters, and its price-to-earnings ratio now stands at a relatively modest 11 percent versus about 20 percent for Unicom and 16 percent for China Telecom.

Analysts expect China Mobile to report little change in quarterly earnings from a year ago, with a consensus forecast of 30.4 billion yuan ($4.45 billion), according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

That snail's pace growth would be similar to the third quarter, when China Mobile's earnings were up just 2.8 percent.

China Telecom, the smallest of the three carriers in the mobile market with about an 8 percent share, is expected to post a 10.7 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit, excluding one-time items from a year ago.

Unicom, with 20 percent share, is set to see a sharp drop in profit, though the company's composition at the end of last year was vastly different from a year ago, following an industry restructuring in early 2009.

Shares of the three telecoms firms trailed the broader market last year, with China Telecom and Unicom posting gains of about 10 percent and China Mobile dropping slightly even as the broader market surged more than 50 percent.

Analysts will also be looking at acquisition strategies, with a heavy focus on China Mobile following its eyebrow-raising decision last week to buy 20 percent of Pudong Development Bank for $5.8 billion.

Unicom also recently confirmed its European arm had expressed an interest in taking part in a consortium bidding for Nigeria's former state-owned telecoms monopoly, Nitel.

But many analysts question whether China's telecoms carriers -- especially China Mobile, which is flush with cash and has tried global M&A before -- are truly ready for major deals, especially on the competitive global stage.

"Are they really equipped to compete effectively in other markets?" said BOC International's Ng. "The mobile market is a very competitive market anywhere, in most places around the world. The Chinese market is really very protected."

So far this year, China Mobile and China Telecom have risen

2.7 percent and 7.4 percent, respectively, versus a 3.7 percent fall in the broader market. Unicom's shares are down 9.5 percent.

Editing by Anshuman Daga

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