I-Mode Eyes UK Launch

Japanese behemoth NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) has confirmed its intention to launch i-mode services in the U.K. -- and expects to use struggling 3G newcomer Hutchison 3G HK Ltd. as its network partner.

The move is the carrier’s latest attempt to push its wireless data platform into the European market, following rollouts in Holland, France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy, (see Móviles Launches i-Mode, Wind to Take i-Mode to Italy, I-Mode Set For France, and I-mode Gets on BASE).

The service has already achieved huge success for DoCoMo in its home country, where it boasts a 39.5 million subscriber base.

“We are considering our strategy to launch an i-mode service in the U.K. as far as possible because the big four operators have already launched their own i-mode-type services,” says Pat Kuwahata, executive director of public relations at DoCoMo Europe. “The U.K. is a very important market for us.”

Kuwahata notes that the decision to work with Hutchison stems from an ongoing relationship -- DoCoMo holds a 20 percent stake in the 3G greenfield operation. “We are not looking for partners other than 3 in the U.K," he adds. "We have invested much money in 3 along with KPN."(See DoCoMo Stumps Up £200M for 3.)

Hutchison, however, seems unlikely to rush into any joint venture before overcoming its own problems. The carrier is facing an uphill struggle to convince users to adopt new 3G multimedia services, with subscriber numbers falling waaayyy short of earlier estimations (see Hutch Bullish on Targets).

Kuwahata admits that talks with Hutchison are progressing “slowly," and is unable to confirm specific timeframes for a launch. “We haven’t received any official statement from them.”

Hutchison was unavailable for comment.

Analysts remain skeptical of DoCoMo’s ability to repeat its home success in the U.K., especially in light of rival wireless data offerings (see Vodafone Claims 1M Live! Users and O2 Gets Active). “It will be a real struggle,” says Nitesh Patel, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics Inc. “Users will have to be convinced that the services on offer are better than they can get elsewhere. We don’t see too much extra demand for i-mode services here.”

— Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung
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