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Stealth Opportunity in Chinese Wireless

This column was originally published on RealMoney on Feb. 6 at 1:36 p.m. EST. It's being republished as a bonus for readers.

China is hot, and the wireless communications industry there has been in rally mode. However, one segment of the Chinese consumer market that is cruising beneath many investors' radar screens is the wireless value-added services (WVAS) industry.

When you consider that China, already the world's largest mobile-phone market, experienced mobile-phone subscriber growth of 18% in 2005, it's easy to see the potential in this massive growth market for mobile commerce services.

To many Chinese consumers, one's mobile phone is an extension of one's personality. Customized ring tones, games and entertainment downloads are must-haves for those who can afford them and a high priority for teens and young adults.

WVAS products include SMS (text messaging), interactive voice response (IVR), downloadable games, ring tones and music and wireless access protocol (WAP) Internet access. It is currently a $20 billion industry in China and is forecast by analysts to grow by 20% each year through 2010. With that kind of growth rate, the industry can afford to trade significantly higher than the current average price-to-earnings ratio of just 18.7.

So how can investors access this market? There are three Chinese WVAS plays worth further investigation: Tom Online (TOMO), Linktone (LTON) and KongZong (KONG).

Check Out Tom Online

With a market cap of $1.25 billion, Tom Online is the largest player in the WVAS industry, and it also has the most balanced revenue mix, with SMS-based, IVR (2G) and WAP (2.5G) services each contributing nearly a third of sales.

In 2005, the company's revenue increased by 39.6% to an estimated $171.4 million, and EPS jumped 13.6% to 85 cents. This year, Tom Online is expected to earn $1.03 per share on revenue of $211.7 million, giving it a forward P/E of 21.8. Shares closed Friday at $22.15 and trade an average of more than 345,000 shares daily.

With a market cap nearly three times that of its next largest competitor, Tom Online has a size advantage that gives it more leverage in negotiating contracts with carriers. Because of this, it trades at a premium to the industry, but it still has room to grow. With industrywide multiple expansion, shares could easily move above $30.

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