I-mode-based mobile service bound for Europe

NTT DoCoMo Inc., KPN Mobile NV and Telecom Italia Mobile SpA signed a memorandum of understanding Thursday that paves the way for the launch in Europe of a wireless Internet service based on DoCoMo’s hit I-mode service.

The three companies plan to launch the service within the year, and it initially will be available through KPN Mobile’s network in the Netherlands, Telecom Italia Mobile’s network in Italy and the networks of two KPN-affiliated carriers, KPN Orange Belgium NV/SA in Belgium and E-Plus GmbH in Germany, the partners said in a statement.

The rollout of wireless Internet services is not planned to stop there. The partners said they would look at the possibilities of expanding the service area to Telecom Italia Mobile-affiliated operators in Europe once the initial service is launched. Telecom Italia Mobile has affiliations with Bouygues Telecom SA in France, Amena Mobiles SA in Spain, Mobilkom Austria AG in Austria, Stet Hellas Telecommunications SA in Greece and Is TIM in Turkey.

Launched in February 1999, I-mode has been incredibly successful in Japan. Latest figures from the operator show 17.8 million subscribers to the service, which offers access to e-mail and Internet services via cell phones. This is in marked contrast to the wireless Internet services launched by European carriers, based on the WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) standard, which have attracted a much smaller number of users and are less advanced.

A key difference between the current European services and I-mode lies in the data network. I-mode operates on a packet system in which users pay only for the data they send and receive. The European services have, until recently, operated over the conventional switched network and levied time-based usage charges on users, making them considerably more expensive to use than I-mode. With the launch of GPRS (General Packet Radio System) on many European networks, packet-based services will become possible.

With the launch of I-mode, the carriers won’t be totally abandoning WAP-based services. Although the new wireless Internet service to be offered will be based on Compact HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), a subset of the HTML language used on the Internet, handsets for the new service will be dual mode and offer access to WML (Wireless Markup Language) content, the standard for WAP services.

Under the terms of the memorandum, KPN Mobile and NTT DoCoMo will establish a joint venture in March that consolidates the mobile data businesses of KPN Mobile, KPN Orange and E-Plus and will work towards launching the new service. KPN Mobile will own 75 per cent of the company with NTT DoCoMo holding the remaining 25 per cent stake. Telecom Italia Mobile will not hold equity in the company.

The new company, which has yet to be named, will be responsible for server operation, operation of the main menu and portal services and development of a pan-European brand. It will also contract content providers for the service and make decisions on server and terminal functions.

NTT DoCoMo, in Tokyo, can be contacted at http://www.nttdocomo.co.jp/. KPN Mobile NV in The Hague, Netherlands can be reached at http://www.kpnmobile.com/. TIM can be contacted in Rome at http://www.tim.it.