By Lee Chyen Yee
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China Mobile Ltd <0941.HK>, the world's biggest mobile operator by subscribers, posted a 1.3 percent gain in third-quarter net profit, beating estimates slightly, after luring new users to its network with cheap handsets and low call rates.
China Mobile, which has more than two times as many subscribers as the population of the United States, said average monthly net additional customers exceeded 5.4 million and that the company continued to lead the industry.
By offering handset deals and ultra-cheap voice plans, China Mobile has built up a vast rural subscriber base. But hefty handset subsidies and a lack of premium customers on its 3G data network, which does not support older models of Apple Inc's
China Mobile earned 31.1 billion yuan in July-to-September, according to calculations by Reuters based on nine-month profit data released on Monday. That compares with an average forecast of 30.5 billion yuan in a Reuters poll of nine analysts and a net profit of 30.7 billion yuan a year earlier.
"Even with iPhones, the bottomline will still be pressured because of the increasing rebates in mobile phones," said Philip Mok, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Phillip Securities. "(The key risk) will be slower-than-expected growth in its 3G customer base."
Earlier this year, China Mobile increased its full-year handset subsidies to 26 billion yuan from the originally planned 20 billion yuan to attract new users.
In the first six months, China Mobile spent the equivalent of 4.5 percent of its revenue on handset subsidies, company data showed.
That is less than the 8.3 percent for China Telecom Corp Ltd <0728.HK>, which started selling iPhones earlier this year in the hopes of securing more data subscribers.
China Unicom (Hong Kong) Ltd <0762.HK>
China Mobile shares ended 1.1 percent higher on Monday, before the earnings announcement. They beat the main Hang Seng Index's 0.7 percent gain.
China Mobile had a net profit of 93.31 billion yuan in the first nine months compared with 91.98 billion yuan a year earlier, the company said after the Hong Kong market close.
Operating revenue rose 6.4 percent to 408.6 billion yuan, but average revenue per user (ARPU), a key industry gauge, fell to 4.3 percent to 67 yuan from a year earlier.
Chinese wireless carriers have been trying to boost their ARPUs by selling smartphones and offering premium plans to users willing to pay more to surf the Internet, download data and play online games.
Currently, more than 80 percent of China's 1 billion mobile phone users are still on slower, low-end 2G networks.
Only around 10 percent of China Mobile's overall subscribers are 3G users, less than China Unicom's nearly 30 percent and China Telecom's almost 40 percent, data from carriers showed.
China Mobile has been lagging China Telecom and China Unicom in attracting higher end 3G users because of its technology.
China Mobile uses its own unique homegrown standard for its 3G service that is not compatible with older models of the iPhone. The latest iPhone 5 contains a Qualcomm Inc
However, analysts said a contract with Apple might not be imminent as negotiations on terms are expected to be tough.
China Mobile also carries smartphones that run on Google Inc's
(Editing by Ryan Woo)