DoCoMo's European plans for I-mode hit a snag

NTT DoCoMo Inc. is delaying the European launch of its popular I-mode service due to difficulties local operators are having in adapting the technology to the European market, a company representative said on Tuesday. "We cannot say when and just what date the launch will happen, but it has been delayed," said Paris-based DoCoMo manager, Midori Matusbayashi. "It will probably now happen sometime in 2002."

In January, NTT DoCoMo, KPN Mobile NV and Telecom Italia Mobile SpA announced that they planned to launch the wireless Internet service in Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium and was predicted to have a potential market of about 165 million customers. Specifically, the problems with getting I-mode off the ground have been with the WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and GPRS (General Packet Radio System) services. European operators are taking longer than expected to get the new GPRS technologies up and running smoothly on the their networks, Matusbayashi said.

"The European operators are having so many problems launching GPRS, we are wondering how we will best be able to offer services," Matusbayashi said.

Launched in February 1999, I-mode has been incredibly successful in Japan. As of July 15, the operator reported 25.5 million subscribers to the service, which offers access to e-mail and Internet services over mobile phones.

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, used WAP technology and operated over the conventional switched network, charging users for time online, which also makes them considerably more expensive to use than I-mode.

With the launch of GPRS on many European networks, packet-based services have become possible, but the roll out of GPRS has been problematic for both network operators and handset makers alike. For example, last month, L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. launched its second GPRS triband mobile phone, the T39, but refused to say how many units would be available upon commercial release and didn't have any commercial units available to test. "The fundamental point at the moment is that the GPRS networks have been ready for such a long time but the services have not been launched since there is such a lack of handsets available," said Paolo Pescatore, senior research analyst in wireless mobile communication at International Data Corp. (IDC) There is only one GPRS handset, made by Motorola Inc., that is currently widely available on the European market. Until more handsets are ready, I-mode and GPRS services in general won't take off in Europe, Pescatore said.

"And to be honest, I think DoCoMo is holding out for the next version of WAP 2.0 to be rolled out. It is really a matter of perception and if all the pieces are in place, it would make it look extra good and appealing to consumers," Pescatore said. The newest version of WAP is not expected to be released until sometime towards the end of this year, he added.

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.

DoCoMo is also reliant on KPN to roll out its GPRS network to consumers, something is has yet to do.

"KPN has launched GPRS in the Netherlands, but specifically for the corporate customer," Pescatore said.

I-mode is tailored to the consumer market, offering consumer services such as weather forecasts and online games. It has saturated that market in Japan and is aiming to do the same in Europe, Pescatore said.

"KPN is shooting to launch GPRS to the consumer market in the Netherlands and in Germany -- which will be a very important market -- towards the last quarter of this year," Pescatore said.

According to Matusbayashi, DoCoMo still plans to launch the I-mode service in Europe before offering the services worldwide. But the company also plans to launch the service in the U.S. next year. "We plan on launching I-mode in the U.S. with the help of AT&T (Corp.) and in other Asian countries," and are still aiming to do so before the end of 2002, Matusbayashi said.

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