A new generation of wireless communications will allow humans to leave messages with their pets, talk to their refrigerator, search the Internet or watch a movie in their car while the car drives by itself.

That was the vision of the future outlined by Keiji Tachikawa, president and chief executive of NTT DoCoMo, during his presentation at the Asian Business Conference, part of Wharton’s 2001 Global Business Forum.

The company, a leader in mobile communications service, has 65 million voice subscribers, but in 1999 it launched its popular iMode, a network for wireless Internet access overlaid on the company’s existing voice network. Tachikawa predicted the number of iMode subscribers will grow to 29 million in 2.5 years.

NTT DoCoMo, with 18,000 employees, was founded as a unit of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone in 1992 and was partially spun out in 1998. For the year ending in May 2002, operating revenues are expected to grow 11.3% to $50 billion, Tachikawa said.

The company’s strategy extends beyond voice service. “Anything that moves could become a potential user of mobile communication services,” said Tachikawa, adding that NTT DoCoMo will expand into multimedia, offering video conference and database services to businesses. For consumers, it might offer electronic newspapers and books, and interactive television. Governments, he said, could become customers by using its services in disaster situations.

All this expansion, however, will require a more sophisticated network. Tachikawa said NTT DoCoMo is planning a third-generation iMode network with expanded bandwidth. In October, the company began to offer third-generation service in Japan and plans to extend the network to 90% of the country in the next three years. Although that will take $10 billion in investment, NTT DoCoMo will be profitable in five years, Tachikawa said.

But even that network will not have the capability of transmitting moving images at a high rate of speed, so the company’s research and development teams are working on fourth and fifth-generation systems, Tachikawa added.

The company’s strategy also relies on ubiquity, or widespread use by different types of users. “In addition to person-to-person communication, we plan to support person-to-machine and machine-to-machine communication in our mobile network,” Tachikawa said, pointing out that while the human population of Japan is 120 million, there are 100 million automobiles, 50 million personal computers, 20 million pets and 40 million refrigerators. In all there are about 570 million other objects in Japan that could be wired for communication with humans or other objects.

Non-voice subscribers are expected to account for 80-90% of the company’s total business in 10 years. “There are many possible applications,” Tachikawa noted. “We ourselves cannot tell what will become the key applications. Our engineers will work on this and the market will decide.”

Users of these third-generation services are more likely to be corporations, he added. Until now, the company has been more oriented to consumers. “Corporations will focus on the opportunity of wireless to cultivate new business opportunities or improve their own business efficiency.”

But later, the applications for wireless use in automobiles or bicycles will extend to consumers, Tachikawa predicted. Consumers, for example, could use the system for entertainment in their cars. He also said businesses and consumers could benefit through wireless e-commerce. For example, the company is working with Coca Cola on a system that allows customers to pay for beverages with their phone.

“Initially we will target customers from the corporate sector, but in four or five years time, I believe it will penetrate widely into the consumer segment as well,” said Tachikawa.

NTT DoCoMo also plans to extend its global reach. “Our goal is to provide universal mobile multimedia anywhere in the world. When this is achieved our customers can bring their own handset to other countries and access the same service they have in their home market.”

He said NTT DoCoMo will take on partners in other countries. “We have [no intention] of operating any business directly by ourselves overseas. We would like to find a partner to make alliances for the operations abroad.” NTT DoCoMo’s U.S. partner is AT&T Wireless.

According to Tachikawa, over-enthusiasm about the third-generation network created a frenzy in Europe that led to very rich prices paid in government auctions for licenses. He said bidders appeared to be using a type of “game theory.” “If one carrier is participating in the game, some other carriers thought they must also participate in the game and that pushed up the prices. But fortunately that only happened in the U.K. and Germany and then people stopped and thought again.”

He said the auctions have left some operators in Europe with a huge financial burden, which may postpone the introduction of NTT DoCoMo’s third-generation iMode service. However, new operators may soon be able to jump into several of those markets.

When looking for an alliance partner, Tachikawa said technological compatibility is the prime consideration. Also important is a partner who agrees with NTT DoCoMo’s future growth strategies.

The company’s expansion plans include Asia. NTT DoCoMo will focus on countries where Japanese people travel often or have extensive business ties. One key lesson the company never forgets, Tachikawa said, “is to always keep your home market as your most important market.”