Wednesday, January 7, 2015

NTT Docomo to remove 3-day 1 GB limit on LTE data

All  of the Japanese carriers, in addition to having a monthly cap on data usage, also implement controls on short-term usage. This is because they lack the infrastructure to support an enormous instantaneous demand. In the past with other carriers, this has caused a tremendous amount of confusion due to inconsistent and improper communication to customers regarding these throttles. (Actually, it was probably because this particular carrier was making things up as it went along.)

To make matters worse, these throttles can be ridiculously implemented, where if you exceed a certain amount of data over a certain period of time, you get throttled, but not immediately. Instead, the throttle goes into effect up to 2 months later. That has nothing to do with network management and is purely punitive. I'll be glad to see these go.

Docomo Repeals 1 GB Limit

Docomo's limit was 1 GB over 3 days for Xi LTE data. Exceeding that results in a drastic speed decrease on the following day.
With continued expansion of the Xi coverage area, we can now provide a good user experience even without speed restrictions.
So Docomo will remove the restrictions. Yay! (There's no word on when, however.)

The 366MB 3-day limit on FOMA data will remain.

What about Softbank and KDDI?

Softbank and KDDI have commented that, at the present time, they have no plan to also remove their data limits. So that means they are now scrambling to figure out how to remove their limits, because once one Japanese carrier does something like this, they all have to follow suit or get left behind. I imagine that KDDI will be the first to announce the removal, followed by softbank. When Softbank finally announces, it will be accompanied by a huge amount of noise and BS.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Translation and explanation of revised Japanese SIM lock guidelines

Edit: I forgot to mention the best part. Not only will it be free, it will also be automated, meaning no more painful, time consuming experiences dealing with untrained shop staff. And, that of course means you will be provided with the unlock code.

I've now read the updated SIM unlocking guidelines from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Communications (MIC). I've also translated them below.

In short, I'm very pleased with the new guidelines. They are short, concise, specific, and (most importantly) thorough. I was worried that the MIC would focus narrowly just on SIM locks, leaving carriers free to cripple phones by a myriad of other means, such as locking out the APN settings menu on the phone (like Apple typically does).

The guidelines specifically state that any other restrictions added by carriers should be removed. Hopefully this means the end of the Docomo's automatically changing of APN when tethering, which breaks tethering with MVNOs, other SIM cards, and the ISP.

The guidelines also specifically state that carriers can no longer unlock a phone then refuse to provide service using non sequiturs like "because your phone is unlocked we are no longer able to service it." That is as logical as saying the train was a minute late because I put ham in the refrigerator.

Carriers will also be required to specifically disclose which frequency bands a phone supports,  as well as what services will cease to work. Currently, getting this information from docomo is tedious and uncertain.

Phones will still be sold in a locked state, and the guidelines allows for an a short period of time that the phone cannot be unlocked.

It would seem that Juggly was right (as usual). There is no room at all that I can see for carriers to take an opposite approach and cripple unlocked phones.

The guidelines do not go in effect until May 2015. Though there is a clause stating that these guidelines should apply to phones announced before that date, I do not at all expect that to happen. In that sentence, there was a line break that caused me to read over a very important character, 前. The old guidelines will apply to existing phones. Purchase phones that initially go on sale after May 5.

(なお、それ以前に発売された端末については、平成 26 年●月改正 前のガイドラインの趣旨に沿って適切に対応することが適当である。)

For the iPhone, this would mean the next iteration that would presumably become available around October/November 2015.

(Anything in [brackets] is added by me.)

May 2010 (Revised: 2014)


Currently in Japan, handsets provided by MNOs are "SIM Locked," preventing usage on other mobile networks.

Users of these devices have expressed the desire to both use their domestic devices while overseas with locally-obtained SIM cards and to continue using the same phone after porting their number to a different MNO.

Due to problems arising from large differences in specifications [i.e., WCDMA v CDMA-2000], frequencies, and platforms [i.e., carrier mail, etc.], individual MNOs were requested to voluntary abide by the "Guidelines Concerning SIM Locks" in 2010.

However, unlocking by MNOs remains limited at present. In addition, SIM locks have not only hindered users, but have also increased the cost to other MNOs of acquiring new customers, partially leading to the [unreasonably] large cash back offers.

Now, the spread of LTE and smartphones has changed the mobile marketplace, increasing interoperability of specifications and frequencies between MNOs. Therefore, both the basic and specific points of these guidelines should be adjusted accordingly.

Note: The guidelines defined 役務 (service) as electronic communication services concerning mobile phones, including mobile phone access service, 3.9G [LTE] access service, and virtual mobile electronic communication services associated with mobile phones.

Ministry Opinion

Article 29, Paragraph 1, Item 12 of the Telecommunications Business Act of 1984 allows for the invoking of measures to reform telecommunication practices that are unreasonable or unjust and may or do result in unsound industry development or are not in the best interest of the populace.

SIM locks constitute an inconvenience that prevents receiving service with existing handsets upon switching MNOs, as well as usage of a locally-obtained SIM card while overseas. SIM Locks further increase the cost incurred by MNOs in recruiting new customers and are the cause of differentiation in service fees and content [between new and existing customers], hindering competition. SIM locks are also the root of the large cash back offers used to acquire new customers that are promoting an unfair situation between longterm users and those who frequently change MNO.

However, MNOs have expressed the following concerns regarding not implementing SIM locking. 1) Lack of full support by other MNOs for unlocked handsets may cause confusion for users. 2) Compared to a market with locked handsets, promotional costs will increase, likely resulting in retail prices above current. 3) Loss of incentive to develop original brands and services.

Regarding 1), it is appropriate to leave the decision to users after sufficient explanation. Regarding 2), it is not likely to cause a large problem considering the typical user situation in which an amount equivalent to the handset cost is discounted monthly from the service cost. Furthermore, the cash back amounts at the time of purchase have become excessive, creating an unfair situation between longterm customers and frequent switchers and becoming a problem for fair competition. The removal of SIM locks is expected to result in restraint regarding these promotions. Regarding strategies for original branding (3), rather than using SIM locks to forcibly retain customers, it is preferable to develop and provide services that take maximum advantage of a handset's appeal.

Thus, the above concerns do not constitute proper and reasonable grounds to continue SIM locking. Finally, the traditional problem for unlocking (incompatible frequencies, standards, and specifications) continues to be lesser and lesser of a problem.

Considering the above, MNO's users (including those who have already cancelled service) have called for unlocking handsets, and in the lack of valid justification to the contrary from MNOs, it is necessary to invoke measures to reform current practices under Article 29, Paragraph 1, Item 12 of the Telecommunications Business Act to protect the interest of users and foster sound industry development.

Specifics for SIM unlocking

  1. Eligible handsets
    1. Carriers should in principle remove SIM locks from all handsets.
    2. Refusal to remove SIM locks is limited to cases that would result in unfair competition or excessive hinderance to usage with other carriers. (This applies to specialized devices that pose technical issues, i.e., nonstandard mobile specifications or frequencies and does not include general usage devices such as those commonly known as feature phones, smartphones, tablets, mobile routers, and USB modems)
  2. Unlocking process
    1. Carriers should whenever possible quickly and simply conduct unlocking through the internet or over the phone at no additional cost. (Alternate means for unlocking at no cost does not preclude the levying of a service charge if in-store unlocking is performed at the customer's request. A service charge may also be levied against customers with no active service contract for in-store unlocking.)
    2. Carriers may make exceptions and add a limited no-unlock period to prevent improper use of unlocked phone and mitigate the risk of loss of subsidized phones
  3. Unlocking process should be set in advance and publicly disclosed

Points to note during SIM unlocking

  1. Explanation to Users
    At the time of handset sale, SIM unlocking, or conclusion of a service contract, MNOs should make reasonable effort through means such as in-store explanation, pamphlets, or websites to ensure that the user understand the following points in particular.
    1. At time of purchase
      1. Whether the handset is eligible for unlocking
      2. The conditions and process of unlocking
      3. Which mobile services, applications, etc. will be partially or fully inoperable with another MNO SIM card
      4. The frequency bands supported by the handset
    2. At time of unlocking
      1. The conditions and process of unlocking
      2. Which mobile services, applications, etc. will be partially or fully inoperable with another MNO SIM card
      3. How to obtain service or repair for the unlocked handset
    3. At time of contract conclusion
      Which mobile services, applications, etc. will be partially or fully inoperable with another MNO SIM card
  2. Clarification of means for inquiry by users of unlocked handsets
    MNOs should consult with handset makers to prepare and clarify a means to perform service on unlocked handsets.
  3. Confirmation of proper technical certification
    MNOs should make efforts to confirm that uncertified phones are not used on their network.


Because it is desirable that unlocked handsets are as fully functional as possible, appropriate effort should be made to remove together with the SIM lock any additional restrictions on functionality that were set by the MNO.

Implementation of these guidelines

  1. These guidelines will be applied to new devices brought to market after May 5, 2015. It is further appropriate to suitably apply the pre-2014 guidelines to previously announced handsets.
  2. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications will reevaluate these guidelines as necessary following based on the situation following implementation.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How to get a new iPhone with an old data plan

(Short answer: Don't switch to or stay with Docomo.)

All of the Japanese carriers have followed Docomo's lead and introduced new plans with unlimited calling and shared data. A comment on a previous post pointed out that this adds more complexity to the typical Japanese carrier strategy of throwing cash and discounts at people to induce them to switch because of increased minimum monthly costs. To be honest, this year's iPhone release was really boring. I was hoping to see some whacky promotions, but they just never happened, perhaps because the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications asked the carriers show a bit of restraint.
“But excessive cash-back promotions and extreme sales competition that create a sense of unfairness for other long-term users aren’t desirable.”

Cost of old and new plans

Comparison of old and new data plans
Old data plan New data plan
Basic voice plan
¥934 (¥743)
ISP charge
Data plan
¥5,200 (7GB)
¥5,000 (5 GB)
¥6,434 (¥6,243)

The above prices are without tax. I haven't bothered to separate by carrier because they all charge the exact same price. The only difference is in Docomo's old voice plan (shown in parenthesis), but that's only a minor point because it doesn't exist anymore.

The difference in price between the old and new plans is ¥1,566, which equates to about 40 minutes of outgoing calls (at ¥20/30 seconds). Note that the old plan as shown doesn't include any free outgoing calls, even to users of the same network. For someone who makes zero outgoing calls, that's an increase in price of ¥37,584 over a 24-month contract. However this is only the case if you are getting your shiny new iPhone from Docomo.

Docomo forced "upgrade" to new data plan

Not only had docomo discontinued the old data plan as of September 1st of this year, existing customers MUST upgrade to the new data plans to be eligible for a monthly handset subsidy (月々サポート). There is no mention of the voice plan, but (as you may have guessed), getting the new data plan also requires getting the new voice plan. Yay.

The monthly subsidies are what allow you to walk out of a store with a new phone for somewhere between nothing and ¥20,000. The actual cost of the phone is often upwards of ¥100,000, split over your monthly bill for 12 to 24 months. Then the subsidy (typically an equal amount) is subtracted. Remove that subsidy and you will be charged ¥99,792 for a Docomo iPhone 6 Plus.

Softbank and KDDI still offer old plans – for now

You may have been told differently by random Softbank shop staff, but it IS still possible to get a brand new subsidized (and shiny) iPhone with the old, less expensive data plans. (See here for example.)
Unlike docomo where the only reasonable choice is a new data plan, both AU and Softbank offer the old plans, even for new new users who port over a phone number.
The Softbank white plan is available for new contracts until November 30, 2014. The AU LTE Plan was previously shown to be available until the end of February next year, but there is currently no restriction displayed.

When porting in a new new number (MNP) to either KDDI or Softbank, the old plan base fee (¥934) is waived for two years. These two carriers will also buy back your old docomo iPhone 5S or 5C for about ¥30,000 or so.

Trade in a Docomo iPhone 5S

I'll consider a 1 year old 16GB Docomo iPhone 5S that was bought by an existing customer (no MNP discount). In that case, you probably owe about ¥40,000 on the phone, which is the amount you will be billed for if you cancel you contract and port out your number. Add to that about ¥10,000 for early termination, and the cost to leave Docomo becomes ¥50,000.

KDDI will buy that phone for up to ¥31,000, and the waived base fee (old plan) totals about ¥22,000 over 24 months, offsetting the cost of leaving Docomo assuming you don't then jump to Softbank when the new (and probably shiny) iPhone 6S Plus XL is released next year.

If you stay with Docomo, while they will buy back your iPhone 5S, they won't give you a discount for being a loyal customer, and they will force you to upgrade to the unlimited calling plan, a roughly ¥2,000 monthly increase over the current least expensive voice plan (an additional ¥37,584 over a 24-month contract).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Softbank iPhone 6 America Unlimited plan to provide inexpensive roaming

Updated with a correction on application requirements and some images.
Free calls to both Japan and the United States using Sprint's network.

No service application or service fee for plans over 5 GB.

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 and).
  • 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 and no fee for people with data plans over 5 GB 

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.