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DUSSELDORF-The race is on for the $23 billion European mobile phone market, spurred on by the European Union's call to speed up telecommunications deregulation by January 1996.

So bitterly fought is the contest pitting state phone companies against private rivals that $100 million in ad spending will be doled out in Germany alone this year.

The battle is hottest here because busy, status symbol-conscious-and talkative-consumers are snapping up the hardware at a clip of 70,000 a month. Private mobile phone company Mannesmann, Mobilfunk MMO, in fact, expects an astounding half of Ger-many's 80 million population to be hooked up with a mobile phone in the next 10 years.

Currently, there are 2.5 million mobile phone owners here. That is expected to grow to 10-million-to-14 million by the year 2000.

This month the focus shifts to Spain, where the government is preparing to award a license for the nation's first private mobile phone service. Stated-owned Telekom's DeTeMobil, also eyeing Hungary, Russia, the Netherlands and the Ukraine, is in a consortium bidding about $700 million for the Spanish license.

Mannesmann, meanwhile, has turned its attention to Italy, Europe's fastest-growing phone market. There, Mannesmann owns a 15% stake in Omnitel Pronto Italia-the nation's first private mobile phone network-given the green light this month.

Like Telekom, Mannesmann has greater ambitions. "We are looking for more European participation," a spokesman said.

The reason: Since the advent of mobile phones in Europe a few years ago, at least $4 billion has been spent on hardware, along with $4 billion on the networks and $15 billion on mobile phone services and operations, according to Dean Eyers, senior industrial analyst, Dataquest, London.

Telekom, neck-and-neck with Mannesman in Germany (both sold 800,000 phones so far) is spending $47 million in advertising this year. Its most recent campaign started Nov. 17 from Springer & Jacoby, Hamburg, is a big Christmas push with three different commercials. One spot shows three slapstick Santa Clauses who stop to help a motorist stranded in the rain. Once there, they inspect holiday packages in the car's trunk to judge if she has bought silly or sensible gifts. The woman has, in fact, bought a silly gift but is eager to swap it for a mobile phone.

While Telekom is adopting the nice approach, Mannesmann is naughtier in its $28.5 million campaign from Scholz & Friends, Hamburg. Print ads refer to the company's own status as a private company with the slogan "It's my line," playing on an aversion many Germans have to state-owned companies like Telekom.

Rival E-Plus, owned by the U.K.'s Vodafone and Germany's Veba and Thyssen industrial groups, has only about one-third of Germany covered and is spending $7 million on advertising this year through BBDO Business Communication. TV, handled by Grey Dusseldorf, will be added next year. It's print message: "Only 29-cents between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. and on weekends."

Mobile phone producers like Nokia, Motorola, Siemens and Bosch are spending another $18.8 million in Germany.

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