Mainland mobile operator China Unicom says commercial trials of its 3G mobile service will expand to 168 more cities next month as its network catches up with rivals. The company, which began its 3G mobile service in May, has continuing commercial trials in 100 cities, bringing the total to 268 cities offering 3G services next month. The newly added cities are in 18 provinces, including Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Hunan, Liaoning, Sichuan and Yunnan. Unicom has budgeted 110 billion yuan (HK$124.77 billion) this year for mobile network expansion. The company, which was late in deploying its 3G network across the nation, is catching up with China Telecom Corp in network coverage. China Telecom offers its 3G mobile service in more than 300 cities. China Mobile, which provides the service based on the mainland-developed TD-SCDMA technology, has a network covering 38 cities. Unicom, which uses WCDMA 3G technology, is building a separate 3G network on top of its existing 2G network for better coverage. China Telecom's 2G CDMA network can be made 3G-compatible through software upgrades. Many observers expect Unicom to be a winner in the 3G competition because it holds the licence to the world's most popular 3G technology. The company is also close to an agreement with Apple for the exclusive sale of the iPhone on the mainland. Analysts said the success of Unicom's 3G service would depend on the depth of its marketing push. 'Unicom's 3G will target China Mobile's high-spending users,' said Fang Meiqin, an analyst at research house BDA China. 'But the network quality and services could be the key to Unicom's success.' Meanwhile, research house In-Stat said the mainland's 4G technology, TD-LTE, could be launched in 2011. 'China Mobile will be the first operator to launch a commercial 4G operation,' said In-Stat analyst Anty Zheng. 'This will happen in limited areas in 2011. China Telecom and Unicom will, we believe, follow China Mobile's lead.' In-Stat predicted that the mainland's 4G subscribers would number no more than 500,000 by 2013, and 80 per cent of them would be China Mobile subscribers. Unicom and China Telecom will begin building their 4G networks later than China Mobile, likely in 2012. Shares in Unicom rose 0.54 per cent to close at HK$11.08 yesterday.