Adding the iPhone more than hype for Chinese carriers

Beyond the buzz about how great the iPhone is, monthly subscriber numbers from China’s big three cell phone operators show a significant divide between those that carry Apple (AAPL, quote) products and those that don’t.

Image courtesy Kenny Louie : http://www.everystockphoto.com/photographer.php?photographer_id=21864China Mobile (CHL, quote) came in overnight with a first-quarter profit roughly in line with analyst consensus and over 5.7 million new customer accounts in March alone.

But on the closely watched 3G side of the business — where the affluent and profitable smartphones are — CHL added nearly 3 million data accounts last month.

That’s growth of 5.2%, a number any U.S. carrier would be happy to report.

However, top rivals China Unicom (CHU, quote) and China Telecom (CHA, quote) have been reporting 3G growth of 6.2% to 6.3% on a month-over-month basis.

Those two companies have the iPhone. China Mobile doesn’t.

For many Apple-crazed traders, the “iPhone advantage” is often considered an all-or-nothing thing. Either a carrier supports Apple products — and they’re automatically assumed to be the winner in its market — or it doesn’t.

At least in China, it looks like the iPhone translates into about 1 percentage point more monthly growth as consumers sign up expressly to get this particular handset in their hands.

Pricing, service, reception: if they’re all equivalent, you still get 1 percentage point out of the “iPhone advantage.”

China Mobile is still the top dog in the biggest telecom market in the world, with twice as many voice-only customers as the United States has citizens.

Its rivals are still much smaller. And even with that extra 1% of growth a month, it’s going to take a while until they get anything like CHL’s leading share.

But for now, if you like growth, it looks like having AAPL in your corner makes an appreciable difference.