UK carrier mmO2 is negotiating with NTT DoCoMo to launch a mobile internet service in the UK based on the Japanese company's I-mode.
The companies are working on a deal, still to be finalised, for DoCoMo to provide mmO2 with data distribution, content development services and other know-how. A version of the I-mode service will be introduced in the UK on mm02's GPRS handsets next year, and later, on 3G handsets, according to an industry source who declined to be named.
Yesterday DoCoMo admitted it was studying the possibility of offering an I-mode service in the UK but said that no agreement had been reached. It did not mention mmO2.
However, one analyst went much further.
"It's a done deal," said Kirk Boodry, telecom analyst with Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in Tokyo.
Boodry said the agreement wouldn't generate much revenue for DoCoMo but would extend its brand in Europe. For mmO2, the move gives it an easy route to provide mobile internet services by exploiting DoCoMo's extensive experience with I-mode.
I-mode offers an easy-to-use package of content, e-mail, games and other applications and services designed for packet-based network technologies, in a format that is virtually identical to regular web pages.
The move plugs a gap in DoCoMo's efforts to promote the service throughout Europe.
After taking a 20% stake in Hutchison 3G in 2000, DoCoMo had hoped the company would introduce I-mode on its 3G high-speed network. But after Hutchison 3G failed to roll out the service, DoCoMo sold the stake back to the company's Hong Kong parent, Hutchison Whampoa, in May and has been looking for another UK partner ever since.
Meanwhile, UK carriers have been rolling out rival mobile internet services.
I-mode was launched in 1999 and is popular in Japan, where DoCoMo has over 42 million I-mode subscribers. The service has more than three million subscribers outside Japan, according to DoCoMo spokesman Takumi Suzuki.
A deal with mmO2 would be the 11th I-mode partnership between DoCoMo and a carrier outside Japan.
This year, DoCoMo has announced a string of deals to promote I-mode use by foreign carriers. The company partnered with Cellcom Israel to launch I-mode in Israel in 2005.
DoCoMo has also partnered with Telstra to offer the service on the Australian carrier's mobile phones. The service will be launched this year on Telstra's 2G network and later on a 3G network. Cosmote Mobile Communications has also launched a wireless internet service based on the I-mode platform in Greece.
Other I-mode partners are E-Plus Mobilfunk in Germany, KPN Mobile in the Netherlands, Far EasTone Telecommunications in Taiwan, Base in Belgium, Bouygues Telecom in France, Telefonica Móviles in Spain and Wind Telecomunicazioni in Italy.
Paul Kallender writes for IDG News Service