NTT DoCoMo has agreed to sell its entire 20% stake in Hutchison 3G UK (H3G UK), worth £120m, back to Hong Kong parent company Hutchison Whampoa in a move that frees the Japanese mobile phone company to team with another UK operator for launching I-mode.
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"We are open for alternatives in the future," an NTT DoCoMo spokesman said. "This is an important market for I-mode."
NTT DoCoMo's decision to divest its stake in H3G UK ends months of speculation about its partnership with the 3G high-speed mobile internet operator.
In October, NTT DoCoMo president and chief executive officer Keiji Tachikawa signalled the first signs of a split with the UK company when he said the Japanese operator is negotiating with other operators that "are willing to provide I-mode in the UK".
The spokesman declined, however, to comment on who those operators could be. The three most likely candidates are O2, Orange and T-Mobile UK.
Unlike earlier WAP offerings, I-mode is an easily navigable package of preselected services. Its format is nearly identical to regular web pages. NTT DoCoMo provides the software and branding and leaves mobile phone operators to cut deals with local content providers.
Designed for packet-based network technologies such as GPRS and Wideband CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), I-mode has been particularly popular in Japan, where it has drawn more than 40 million subscribers, according to NTT DoCoMo. It is available in several European countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. In February, the service hit the one million-subscriber mark in Europe.
Whether NTT DoCoMo will have any better luck convincing O2, Orange or T-Mobile to launch I-mode in the UK remains to be seen. Orange and T-Mobile have already launched their own operator-branded mobile internet services, following in the footsteps of Vodafone, Europe's largest mobile phone company, which has successfully launched its Live! offering.
John Blau writes for IDG News Service