HONG KONG - China Unicom, one of China's top three mobile carriers, may be close to a deal that would see it become the exclusive seller of Apple's iPhones in China for two years, a Merrill Lynch analyst said.

Our industry checks reveal that Unicom and Apple have most likely reached a deal for an exclusive 2-plus year agreement, analyst Cynthia Meng wrote in a research note dated June 18. We expect iPhone products to be available in conjunction with the Unicom commercial scale 3G launch in Q4, starting on Oct 1. A Unicom spokeswoman said the two sides were still in discussions, but would not comment further.

Market chatter has been rampant over the last year over what company, if any, would eventually offer the iPhone in China. Speculation has centred on Unicom and China Mobile (0941.HK), China's dominant mobile carrier, which both operate systems based on the GSM standard that iPhones use.

China Mobile has also confirmed in the past that it was in talks with Apple over the iPhone.

Previous reports have said that talks have dragged on because Beijing leaders object to the revenue-sharing model that Apple insists on for its cellular partners that offer the iPhone. (Reporting by Joanne Chiu and Doug Young; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)