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Mobile users' data rate and quality of service are limited by the fact that, within the duration of any given call, they experience severe variations in signal attenuation, thereby necessitating the use of some type of diversity. In this two-part paper, we propose a new form of spatial diversity, in which diversity gains are achieved via the cooperation of mobile users. Part I describes the user cooperation strategy, while Part II (see ibid., p.1939-48) focuses on implementation issues and performance analysis. Results show that, even though the interuser channel is noisy, cooperation leads not only to an increase in capacity for both users but also to a more robust system, where users' achievable rates are less susceptible to channel variations.