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

ITworld.com |  Networking

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," Matusbayashi added.

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 around 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.

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