Every year for the last five years, Li Ka-shing and his lieutenants at Hutchison Whampoa have promised shareholders that their massively expensive investment in the company's 3G telecoms division is just about to pay off. Back in 2005, they predicted that the business would cover its operating costs the following year and turn a profit in 2007. In 2007, they revised their forecast, saying that the 3G business should turn the corner and generate a profit before interest expenses and tax during 2008. By 2008 the projected break-even date had become 2009, and in mid-2009 the elusive target was shifted again, with Hutchison's bosses saying the unit would finally break into the black during the first half of 2010. Alas, that forecast also proved over-optimistic. Interim results published by Hutchison yesterday showed that the conglomerate's 3G division recorded a loss of HK$998 million during the first six months of this year. That brings the unit's accumulated losses since 2002 to a monstrous HK$156.5 billion - more than the entire gross domestic product of booming Macau - and that's before factoring in the cost of paying interest on all the debt Hutch has run up building 3G networks in Europe. True to form, however, Li is still promising that the business is on the brink of breaking even. Yesterday he forecast that the 3G division will make 'a positive contribution' to Hutchison's full-year profits before interest charges and tax for 2010. This time he might just be right. Hutchison's 3G losses have been diminishing sharply over the last couple of years as its subscriber base has grown and the cost of attracting new customers with subsidised handsets has fallen (see the chart below). The group's businesses in Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Australia are already in the black. And although Hutchison's British 3G business made a loss of GBP20 million (HK$247 million) in the first half of this year, group managing director Canning Fok says that robust sales tied to Apple's new iPhone should swing it into profit over the coming months. 'We had a wonderful July,' he boasted yesterday. The company's Italian business should follow soon after, also breaking into the black during the second half according to Fok, leaving only Ireland still in the red by the end of the year. If he's right, 2010 will mark a major turning point for Hutchison, which for years has relied on its Hong Kong port and retail cash cows to subsidise its loss-making European telecoms operations. With the 3G business finally profitable, Fok claims Hutchison will be ideally positioned to capture the fast-growing market in mobile data services. 'We are moving into a growth phase for Hutchison,' he claimed yesterday. 'The businesses that have been dragging us back will now be pushing us forward.' Shareholders have yet to be persuaded. Over the last five years Hutchison has woefully underperformed the Hang Seng Index thanks to its losses on 3G. It will take a lot more good news before investors are convinced it is time for the stock to play catch-up.