Bright, Quick, & Flexible

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In Japan, we have four wireless mobile carriers, AU (KDDI), NTT Docomo, Softbank Mobile, and Willcom. If you would like to know the short of it, KDDI is the best overall carrier at this point in terms of reception.

KDDI has the best coverage and very good quality people working with their systems. Their weakness from users is their lack of compelling telephone handsets. If you have people with various phones at a meal somewhere, the AU user will almost always have the best reception. The irritating thing about AU is the long connection time. Some have said it is because the CDMA is connecting to the phone from three different cellular antennae nearby. Makes for a good “sales talk” but we are not sure about that.

NTT Docomo is probably the most expensive of the lot at this point. They have had pretty hard time with their marketing and have a hard time connecting to their users through their advertising with a campaign called “Docomo Style”. Currently, their running costs are probably very high because the have some 20 plus data centers running their cellular network (compared to Softbank`s two sites, Tokyo/Osaka). That combined with all the headcount to staff the facilities could make it difficult to compete. They seem to be somewhat regulated by the NTT breakup and laws, however we feel they could be a bit more creative and not be losing so many subscribers. With 50 million subscribers who can complain, but they do seem to be sharpening up their competitive edge.

Softbank is probably the nimblest of the bunch. Much like the Yahoo BB (Broadband) sales campaigns that heavily contributed to making Japan the cheapest (and thankfully) faster internet in the world; we seem to have the same strategy going on in the mobile spectrum. We saw the purchase of the Vodafone Japan company to become Softbank Mobile. Softbank mobile`s main weapon is price. The president of Softbank, Mr. Son (a Japanese born of Korean background) introduced the “White Plan” which essentially marketed unlimited calls between Softbank Mobile users for 980 yen per month. In the end, the pricing schedule was (and still is) very murky is what SB users say about the various costs for internet access, mail address, packet plan, terminal cost and so forth. These added on costs contribute to a higher phone bill.

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On the creativity side, it would seem both KDDI and Docomo are losing the war to Softbank based on new monthly subscribers. Softbank Mobile has a better choice of mobile phones and has done an excellent job on fine-tuning their calling plans. The iPhone and Sharp’s “Internet Machine” which Mr. Son designed based on feedback of users online have helped their cause.

It will be interesting to see how the mobile wars pan out in Japan. If you look at North America, then it would seem most people decide their carrier based on the phones available and related line-up. If AU can make some changes there, they will become more competitive. Docomo is not exactly a sleeping giant and has RIM’s BlackBerry, which is a wonderful ACE for them if they use it. It sounds like they will be doing so from February.

Additional Notes-
For telephone service, Willcom is an excellent carrier that is cost-effective with very good coverage. Their phones don’t work that well on trains or interiors of high buildings, but well in subways and all over Japan. If there is a major natural disaster, such as an earthquake, major power outage, then Willcom’s network will likely be the only one working and therefore the best solution for DR (disaster recovery). We’ve been using their sets for 10 years with DR and health concerns in mind. (The Willcom network has many more antennae and thereby requires less power on the mobile set itself, hence less powerful electromagnetic waves touching your body).

For wireless internet, the most cost effective solution today is eMobile. They have great service in the densely populated areas which is unlimited high speed access (7.2mbps) for about 5,000 yen per month. They sell great mobile handsets from HTC and some Japanese manufacturers, but the reception is very limited and not recommended at this point. They should be thought of as a data service. Their “change” advertizing campaign was well-done and reminded us in Japan of another certain national election.