China Unicom has created a roaming agreement to offload 2G customers, achieved using a carefully placed sticker instead of mucking about with contracts and signed deals.
The trick is accomplished with an electronic plaster that intercepts communication with the SIM, returning details of Unicom's network when data connections are requested and available, but passing 2G requests to the existing operator's SIM. In this way, it provides the customer with 3G speed when possible, and coverage all of the time.
Fitting may be fiddly, but the end result is much the same as happens in the UK with Three. Three only has a 3G network in the UK, and is well off national coverage, so customers drop onto the Orange (2G) network where necessary.
But Three pays Orange for that service, and pays for every call routed over the Orange network. So much so that Three is switching off roaming wherever it can where its 3G network has what it considers to be adequate coverage.
China Unicom has managed to do the same thing, only without signing an agreement with any other operator and expecting the customer to pay for the roamed-to network as well as the subscription with China Unicom, which will be quite a coup if customers go for it.
It's important because China Unicom is (officially) the exclusive operator for the iPhone, but hasn't the national coverage most people need. That lack of coverage has pushed 7.44 million Chinese iPhone owners onto China Mobile's network, where they don't have any 3G at all (due to incompatible 3G standards) but can make and receive calls as well as using GPRS for their data.
Fit the sticker, which comes in SIM and Micro SIM versions, and one's iPhone will attach to China Unicom's 3G network when it's available, dropping back to China Telecom (and 2G connectivity) everywhere else.
One still has to arrange to have calls forwarded to China Unicom when the phone is on that network, which the operator claims isn't a problem though it admits that text messaging is not seamless. But for pure innovative cleverness it's remarkable, showing (if nothing else) that the Chinese aren't limited to copying ideas developed elsewhere. ®