Japan's popular i-mode mobile Internet service may come to the UK after all.

NTT DoCoMo has agreed to sell its entire 20 per cent stake in Hutchison 3G UK Holdings Ltd. (H3G UK), worth £120 million 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. Despite studying i-mode commercial service for more than a year, H3G never implemented the service.

"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 (third-generation) high-speed mobile Internet operator.

In October, NTT DoCoMo President and CEO Keiji Tachikawa signaled the first signs of a split with the UK company when he said the Japanese operator is negotiating with others that "are willing to provide i-mode in the UK."

Unlike earlier WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) 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 (General Packet Radio Service) 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 1 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 U.K. remains to be seen. Orange and T-Mobile have already launched their own operator-branded mobile Internet services, following in the footsteps of Vodafone Live.