Thursday, September 18, 2014

Softbank iPhone 6 America Unlimited plan to provide inexpensive roaming

I was planning on writing up a post comparing each of the Japanese carrier's iPhone 6 plans but that really gets tiring. They are all basically the same. As soon as one carrier outdoes the rest with some promotion, campaign, discount, offer, or other gimmick, the others quickly devising a similar scheme.

Thus, the answer to the question of which carrier is best for you shiny new iPhone is always the same: not you current carrier because
  1. The discounts and cash back offered to people who port their number to a new carrier offset the early termination fee for leaving.
  2. The new plans allow unlimited calling to all mobiles/land lines, so it no longer matters which carrier your friends and family use.
  3. All carriers now have similar coverage across multiple high and low frequency bands.
  4. All carriers now have similar issues with congestions and network slow downs.
However, this year is different. For American expats or people who frequently travel to the United States, SoftBank appears to be the clear winner in the iPhone 6 competition. After purchasing a majority stake in US carrier Sprint, SoftBank is now able to offer deals that Docomo and KDDI simply cannot match.

SoftBank "All You Can America" Plan

The full details are still scarce, but unless there is something profound that is being held back, the new US roaming plan from Softbank looks pretty nice.
  • Roaming on Sprint's CDMA-2000 (3G) and TD-LTE ("4G") network (the latter will come sometime this (fiscal?) year)
  • ¥980 per month only during months the service is used (free during the initial promotion period).
  • While in the US, voice, SMS, and data are available just as if you were in Japan
  • Apparently unlimited calling in the US (according to tech blogs but there in no mention on SoftBank's press release)
  • No need to apply for the service for people with data plans 5 GB and under

iPhone A1586 (iPhone 6) and A1524 (iPhone 6 Plus) frequency bands (SoftBank and Sprint bands)
CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz)
UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz)
TD-SCDMA 1900 (F), 2000 (A)
GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
FDD-LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 28, 29)
TD-LTE (Bands 38, 39, 40, 41)

Only for the iPhone 6, for now

To do this requires the usage four separate technologies across multiple spectrum bands. SoftBank is a WCDMA carrier, but Sprint (like KDDI) is a CDMA-2000 carrier. While in Japan, the iPhone 6 would use SoftBank's WCDMA (1), FDD-LTE (2), and TD-LTE (3) networks. While in the US, it will use Sprint's CDMA-2000 (4) network, and (eventually), also their TD-LTE network. While some earlier iPhone models are technically compatible with Sprint, these will be excluded (presumably) because they are locked to the technology of the activation carrier. That is, an iPhone 5 activated on a WCDMA carrier can only ever be used with other WCDMA carriers. I guess that could be patched, but then that would remove the inducement to buy a new phone.

There are currently no other phones except for the iPhone 6 that support this combination of bands and technologies. SoftBank is considering releasing an Android phone that would also be compatible. An unlocked iPhone 6 will be ineligible for the all-you-can-america plan. It is also possible to expand usage to FDD-LTE bands 25 and 26 that Sprint is building out.

Coincidence or Planning?

The TD-LTE network that will provide the 4G data connection in the US was originally built out by Clearwire. Sprint at one point owned just over a 50% stake in Clearwire before scaling back to just under 50% in around 2011. Then after SoftBank CEO Son took control of Sprint and injected lots of cash, Sprint bought all the remaining Clearwire shares, obtaining a lot of spectrum and, by chance, a TD-LTE network, using the exact same frequency band (TD-LTE band 41, 2500 MHz) as SoftBank.

Makes me wonder how much that network figured into the decision.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

iPhone 6 "Apple Pay" unavailable in Japan

As discussed many times on this blog, Japan uses Sony's FeliCa standard for mobile payments, such as Suica, Waon, Edy, etc. Quoting Eido Inoue:

FeliCa is Sony developed "Japanese NFC" and is much older than the international NFC system that was inspired by it. Early Japanese phones (smartphone and feature phones) were FeliCa only; newer (all 2014 models and most 2013 models) Japanese market Android docomo phones with NFC are hybrid NFC+FeliCa. Non-Japanese phones are NFC only.
The tech specs so far only list NFC as included on the iPhone 6. Perhaps you recall the debacle surrounding the advertising for the LTE iPad, which misled many non-US consumers to think it was compatible with their local 4G networks. This time around, the marketing department at Apple has done a much better job. There is simply no mention of "Apple Pay" at all on the Japanese website.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Electronic devices now allowed on Japanese flights

Well, I wrote a nice post with the crappy blogger android app, but all the text disappeared, so I'll just leave you with this photo.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reasonably priced voice and data rental SIMs finally come to Japan: B-Mobile PAYG

SIM card rental in Japan is exorbitantly expensive because law prohibits non-residents from obtaining cellular voice contracts, blocking them out of the (relatively) reasonably priced market. The only options are rental services.

The rental market predates 3G, and Japan never used GSM. In the past, visitors had no choice but to rent hardware, which created an environment that (somewhat) justified premium pricing. There was no significant decrease in price following the start of SIM card rental after introduction of 3G networks, and once smartphones proliferated, mobile data options were added data but at laughable prices.

Not anymore.

Inexpensive data with a voice rental SIM

The B-Mobile line of SIM cards from Japan Communications, Inc. (JCI) got a new product today, the prepaid PAYG rental SIM, which provides 60 minutes of outgoing voice calls (incoming is free) and 3GB of 3G/LTE data for ¥9,980. The SIM is active for 7 days, after which any remaining data and minutes become invalid. The specifics are:

B-Mobile PAYG Rental Voice and Data SIM
  • ¥9,980 for 7 days
  • 60 outgoing domestic/international minutes
  • 3 GB 3G/LTE data
  • 5/75 seconds deducted for domestic/international SMS
  • Free tethering
  • incoming calls and SMS free
  • Prepaid (no worry of unexpected, additional charges)
  • Nano, micro, standard SIM card sizes
The SIM card can be purchased in stores (Yodobashi Camera) or preordered. Unfortunately, complying with Japanese law complicates the activation process. If you preorder, you will first set an activation date and upload a scan or image of the passport page with your photo. Then, following activation but within 24 hours of arrival in Japan, you will have to also upload pictures of 1) your entry stamps and 2) the image of the same passport page originally uploaded. If you buy in a store, then you will need to upload all this together as soon as possible and wait for activation.

In a press release, JCI indicated they are working with the government to try and smooth the activation process. By the way, if Tokyo police have their way, this will be required for ALL SIMs sold to non-residents, even data-only SIMs, which means that most MVNOs won't bother to go through the effort and just start requiring residency for data-only SIMs, just like for voice SIMs.

Traditional data costs with a rental voice SIM

At ¥110/day and ¥110 per minute (with a ¥315 service fee), the current SoftBank rental SIM would cost ¥7,685 over a 7 day period if a comparable 60 minutes were used – a better value for just voice. However, if you want to have minimal background data usage for mail, maps, etc., the SoftBank rental costs increase quickly.

Softbank rental data fees are ¥0.32/packet (128 bytes). Doing the math yields the following:
  • 1 KB: ¥3
  • 1 MB: ¥2,621
  • 2 MB: ¥5,243
  • 250 MB: ¥655,360 ($6,500US)
  • 1 GB: ¥2,684,355 ($27,000US)
  • 3 GB: ¥8,053,064 ($80,500US)
Yes, current Japanese rental SIMs value 3 GB of mobile data at 80,000 US dollars. As I said, laughable. Of course no one would ever use this much, and the daily maximums are capped I believe, so it wouldn't be possible anyway. However, because the traditional rentals are postpaid with a credit card, there will always be the concern of incurring additional charges.

A more realistic comparison

Long time readers will recall that I once did an experiment over about 8 months with a b-mobile FAIR data-only SIM. (There is an interactive chart showing how I consumed data during those 240 days at the bottom of this post.) The FAIR is wide open with no proxy or speed restrictions (and accordingly priced). 1 GB of data costs about ¥8,000 and is good for four months. This translates to 250 MB for ¥2,000.

All the other MVNO SIMs, especially the other b-mobile products, are speed restricted and relatively high latency. Because of this, I think it would be near impossible to use 3 GB with the PAYG SIM in 7 days (or even in an entire month). So comparing prices based on high data consumption is completely unrealistic.

Rather, I will compare prices based on my experience with the FAIR SIM because I think my behavior regarding data usage with a 250 MB monthly quota is a good analog for the way people use traditional Japanese rental SIMs. That is, I thought about the cost of everything I did with the phone. On light-usage days, I would consume around 2 MB, which is the equivalent of uploading one or two photos.

Let's compare costs by taking about a quarter of my light-day usage, 500 KB. Seven days with a Softbank rental SIM, using 500 KB per day and 60 minutes total, would cost ¥16,645. To bring the cost down to the PAYG SIM price over 7 days, total data usage over the entire week must be limited to just under 1 MB. One. Megabyte.

Good luck with that.