Distacom, the Hong Kong-based regional cellular-phone operator, has launched its first foray outside Asia, with a bid to jointly run a licence in Europe's largest mobile phone market, Italy. In an alliance with Bell Canada International and the Italian state motorways operator Autostrade, the group is part of a consortium bidding to become the third mobile-phone licence operator in the country. It faces tough competition from two other consortiums, which are Picenne - comprising Mediaset, the Italian television broadcaster, and British Telecom - and Wind, which features Italian electricity utility Enel, with Deutsche Telecom and France Telecom. Italy represents among the most dynamic mobile-phone markets in Western Europe, with five million new connections made last year alone - equivalent to more than a quarter of total European new connections. It has now leapfrogged Britain as the largest market in Europe, and Telecom Italia Mobile, which shares the Italian market with Omnitel Pronto Italia, is Europe's largest mobile-phone company. Distacom's move into Europe was being interpreted yesterday as a push into one of the more obvious growth markets in the world, at a time when Asian cellular markets are expected to remain sluggish in the wake of the economic crisis. The group, run by Richard Siemens, owns 20 per cent of Mandarin Communications, which runs the PCS Sunday service, and has close to 100,000 subscribers. It is also the largest international investor in the Indian cellular market, as well as an investor in Japan. Mr Siemens, who is a well-known figure in the telecoms industry, is credited with establishing Hutchison Telecom's mobile-phone business in 1985. The Italian Government said it intended to award the third licence by the end of next month, and might add a fourth by the end of this year.