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Brussels Sprouts I-Mode

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LR Mobile News Analysis
Light Reading

How many of you have seen the movie If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, the 1969 "adventure comedy" that offers viewers a glimpse of the sartorial splendors of 1969?

Unstrung was reminded of this celluloid gem today (Tuesday!) when Belgian operator BASE announced the immediate availability of i-mode services throughout the country for €6 ($5.88) a month (see I-mode Gets on BASE).

BASE becomes the third mobile operator to launch the European version of NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s (NYSE: DCM) popular Japanese service, following its parent KPN Mobile, which launched in April, and fellow KPN Mobile subsidiary E-Plus Mobilfunk GmbH, which launched in March. KPN Mobile has a license to use an i-mode platform from DoCoMo, which owns a 20 percent stake in KPN Mobile, though the Asian giant recently wrote it down to zero (see DoCoMo Takes a $4.7B Hit).

French operator Bouygues Telecom is set to be the fourth Euro i-mode player, and is hoping to launch in time to catch the pre-Christmas market, though it has a self-imposed deadline of next April (see NEC Bags Euro I-Mode Deal).

Industry analysts believe the simple, consumer-focused services that comprise the i-mode offer -- accessing various content such as weather reports, sports scores, and share prices, as well as playing games and sending emails of up to 1,000 characters -- will attract and retain customers as well as prepare them for the more advanced services the operators plan to offer across their 3G networks. I-mode services are accessed via GPRS connections. BASE was awarded a UMTS license for Belgium in March 2001 at a cost of €150 million.

Now that BASE has finally started service -- June was the original launch date -- KPN Mobile is hoping that uptake of the service in Belgium will help it towards its goal of having 1 million i-mode users across the group by the end of 2003. The latest figures KPN Mobile released for i-mode usage were in August, when the running total was 100,000 (see I-Mode Use Doubles in Europe). "We have no milestones between now and the end of next year," says KPN Mobile spokeswoman Carla van Lomwel. "Our next update will be on November 15. All I can say is that we are still confident of reaching 1 million. Subscriber levels are doing as well as can be expected."

The boys and girls at BASE don't have their own target -- or not one they're talking about, anyway. And the operator is taking a less full-on approach to marketing than its parent, which ran a high-profile TV campaign when it launched its i-mode service. "We are focusing on very specific target groups, and will rely on a mouth-to mouth campaign [ed. note: trying to resuscitate the market?] -- an underground approach," says Bart Vandesompele, external communication manager at BASE. "This will be supported by a campaign of a more modest nature" [than KPN Mobile's].

BASE would welcome any boost to its subscriber, er, base. It currently has 1,150,000 subscribers (14 percent market share), up from 1 million in December 2001. The i-mode service will be launched with one handset from NEC Corp. (Nasdaq: NIPNY), the n21i, "equipped with dual browser to view i-mode-compatible HTML and WML1.X content." BASE has 43 shops throughout the country, though this number is set to increase shortly.

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung

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