UPDATE 1-Japan's Softbank posts 23.7 pct Q3 earnings gain on iPhone
(ADDS details on earnings, market share)
TOKYO Jan 31 (Reuters) - Japan's third largest mobile carrier, Softbank Corp, posted a 23.7 percent increase in operating profit in the third quarter from a year earlier thanks to strong subscriptions from iPhone users.
Softbank said its subscribers increased 0.86 million in the three months to December, lifting its market share to 24.3 percent from 23.9 percent in the previous quarter. The gain came after industry leader NTT DoCoMo, which does not offer the iPhone, said its market share was slipping.
Softbank, which made history last year by agreeing to buy Sprint Nextel Corp for $20.1 billion in the biggest foreign acquisition for a Japanese company to date, also said it was on track to hit its annual operating profit target of 700 billion yen ($7.76 billion) this financial year.
That compares to an average full-year estimate of 734.7 billion yen, or an 8.8 percent increase on the year, according to 19 analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The mobile operator posted an operating profit of 197.4 billion yen in the third quarter, compared to 159.6 billion yen the same quarter last year.
Softbank's shares closed up 2.7 percent ahead of the earnings announcement, at a four-month high of 3,260 yen. The stock has underperformed the Nikkei's 25 percent gain over the past two months, advancing just 10 percent.
Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son launched his bid for a slice of the U.S. market when he agreed to buy a 70 percent share in Sprint last October, taking advantage of the strength of the yen at the time.
The deal has been viewed as a bid to extend the carrier's reach outside Japan and take on U.S. giants like AT&T and Verizon, even at the risk of increasing Softbank's debt burden. (Reporting by Sophie Knight and Hideyuki Sano; Editing by Stephen Coates)