Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hell freezes over: Ala carte SIM cards invade Japan

EDIT 2: See this post for information on bandwidth capping of this product.

For the first time, unlocked smart phones can be properly used in Japan for data transfer, but there is a catch.  The initial plans will be data only.  Voice is not supported, and the up/down speed is not all that fast.

Japan Communications announced yesterday the 通信電池 b-mobileSIM ("communication battery" b-mobileSIM) series.  The first offering will be the "b-mobileSIM U300," which will go on sale from April 5, 2010.

Data transfer speeds are advertised to be a "best effort" maximum of 300 kbps up and down using Docomo's 3G network.  But this is a step in the right direction and only represents the first offering for this product series.  We'll have to wait and see what comes next.

Three plans are available, each with unlimited packet usage for a set amount of time:
  • 1 year for 29,800 yen
  • 6 months for 14,900 yen
  • 1 month for 2980 yen.  
This is significantly cheaper than any unlimited 3G data plan from either Softbank or Docomo.  A credit check/"examination" with the Japan Approvals Institute for Telecommunications Equipment (電気通信端末機器審査協会 JATE)and the Telecom Engineering Center(テレコムエンジニアリングセンター  TELEC)is required.

Right now, it is fairly simple to use an overseas, unlocked GSM smartphone in Japan for voice.  Just swap in a SIM card.  But as many readers are aware, it is much more difficult to access the proper APN for the capped data plans.  It is possible on Softbank after jumping through a number of hoops, but completely impossible on Docomo.  Willcom uses exotic frequencies that few, if any, overseas phones support.

While this is not a perfect solution, this is good news for those who are content to use their T-Mobile G1 or Google Nexus One as a data-only device.  Japan Communication currently has no plan to offer service for the upcoming iPad, which uses a micro-SIM that is apparently there just to f*** with you.

And what is with the name "communication battery?"  From the press release:
1年間使える乾電池のようなものなので、日本通信はこれを「通信電池」というコ ンセプトとして位置づけています。
They are comparing their one-year plan to a battery that is good for about the same amount of time.  Sorry, but that just sounds dumb.  And I didn't know this, but apparently Japan Communication has been offering SIM cards since July of last year for people with Android developer handsets (which are unlocked).

You can subscribe to Japan Communications' mailing list for the latest news on the b-mobileSim series here.


  1. Really interesting news thanks!
    I will wait a bit more to see if some voice plan will come along, it's a bit stupid to keep only data plan.
    Hence the price is really competitive especially the 12 month plan (2483Yen / Month)

  2. I think the other downside that you didnt mention is that bmobile restricts you to 300 kbps down. So not full-3G speeds. If you're ok with that, then I suppose it's a decent service but if you want to do any kind of significant browsing, Google Maps, etc. I think you'd be pretty frustrated with only 300 kbps.

  3. Gen, you are right, that speed is dog-ass slow, as in running like a three-legged dog on valium. But I did mention it, I just failed to emphasize it.

    "Data transfer speeds are advertised to be a "best effort" maximum of 300 kbps up and down using Docomo's 3G network."

    To be honest, I was just so hyped that, for the first time ever, you can get an all-you-can-eat data plan on a bring-your-own smartphone in Japan, that I forgot to mention the speed is not so good. Consider this post edited with said emphasis added.

  4. What good is 300kbps? Can I do VOIP at that speed? 300 kilobits/second = 37.5 kilobytes/second. Can someone give me an idea of what is possible and what isn't at that speed? "Dog-slow" is not really helpful.

  5. As far as I can remember, the US voip service vonage requires a minimum of 90 kbps up and down. So 300 kpbs is enough for voip. However, if the latency is high, that could be an issue. We'll just have to wait and see what the service will be like, but from what we've been told, it should be able to do voip.

  6. Whoops. My bad. I must not have seen your statement as such. Apologies!

  7. I hate that the "share on twitter" box on Disqus is checked by default. Sorry, non-sequitur rant.

  8. this is a step in the right direction. in the meantime, i am still waiting to hear about sim card sales from docomo. an earlier post in this fine blog said they might make a decision around march. anyone hear of any movement on that front yet? i am itching to remove the softbank malignancy from my e71...

  9. No problem. While you're here, if in fact you are still here, does Mozilla have any plans for the mobile space? To me at least, it seems that webkit is well on its way to becoming the default mobile browser.

  10. No news on that front outside of when the docomo CEO mentioned he was studying the business model of offering SIMs sans phones.

    At this point, I don't see docomo doing anything with respect to this until either the N1 or the 3G version of the iPad is available in Japan, whichever comes first.

  11. Here is what I have figured (all figures in kilobytes (KB), video is vertical res.):
    37.5KB/sec. JCI's b-mobileSIM U300 (BEST effort!)
    26.5KB/sec. youtube@240 lines, mono audio
    100KB/sec. youtube@360 lines, 44.1KHz stereo
    160KB/sec. youtube@480 lines, 44.1KHz stereo
    20KB/sec. skype audio only
    47.5KB/sec. skype video call

    So, JCI's b-mobileSIM U300 would be able to stream youtube's lowest quality video and a skype audio-only call IF you get maximum throughput and up speed equals down speed (symetrical) for VOIP. But what would real world conditions be? 30% to half of the best effort numbers?

    I think b-mobileSIM U300 is actually going to be too slow for VOIP. A real world 50-100KB/sec. (approx.500-1000kbps) symetrical connection would be sufficient for VOIP, including video calls. What is this in Japan? Full 3G speeds?

  12. I think we can predict what JCI (or subsequent MVNO's) is going to do here. This is based on the following considerations:
    1) Becoming an MVNO has a low entry barrier. There will be competition, so margins are going to be narrow. This will be a mature market early-on. JCI will have broken the barrier by connecting unlocked phones for the masses.
    2) The phones used with these SIMs are going to be unlocked and therefore tetherable.
    3) Customers will have monthly metering apps on their phones telling them how much data they have used and how much more they have available.

    JCI will offer several monthly data plans at full 3G speeds. This will make the phones fully usable as VOIP phones. At 50KB/sec. two-way data for a skype call, 1 minute is 3MB. 100 minutes per month *while away from WiFi at home and work* would only be 300MB per month. So, the first data plan is going to be a 500MB-1GB monthly plan. Many customers won't be able to use that much, so this will be the most profitable market segment.

    Above this, there will be another level or two for those who want to tether their laptops and tablets will out, but there will not be an unlimited all-you-can-eat data plan. If there were, some of us would drop our home ISP and just run torrents 24/7 and consume something like 300GB of DATA per month. The additional data will be charged at a rate close to the base rate the MVNO pays to its underlying carrier.

    The pricing is basically going to target break even to plus 20-30% of the per-MB charge that docomo or au will charge the MVNO's. Metering apps on our phones ensures this. The profit margin will come from customers who don't make their limit each month and this 20-30% premium. Many of us will be getting close to our monthly DATA limit.

    So, the big question is: What does docomo charge MVNO's per MB? How about au? Once we know that, the rest of the market seems fairly predictable. (Though I don't know why JCI didn't start this ball rolling NOW by offering full 3G with metered DATA consumption...)

    And then, once this market is strong and consumers begin to shift from the current calling plans to MVNO data plans (in a few years), the carriers will begin to offer their own DATA-only plans to compete with the MVNO's, and they will simultaneously begin to lower their connect fees to the MVNO's to attract more revenue from them. Then the whole market will begin a downward price slide / upward use ramp and become a mature and efficient with narrow profit margins throughout.

    Of course, softbank's shitty network is going to mean they'll have to charge less at every market juncture. Unlocked phones and MVNO's is softbank's worst enemy.

  13. (Post deleted by author as unnecessary...)

  14. Being a bit more speculative, and getting out of my depth, I think this means the cell towers and all interconnections to the wired internet are basically being commoditized. MVNO's benefit from being able to spread customer use over different cell phone networks, and it won't matter if you are using docomo or au in a few years. We will next see phones that are able to transparently connect to docomo or au networks (if they are currently unable to...). MVNO's will be their connection. And when LTE / WiMax begins putting up their networks, they will instantly be a commodity as the MVNO's will be positioned to integrate their towers into their national system as well. Hell, I could even lease my WiFi router to an MVNO on a metered basis. Connection type will soon no loner matter. The more connect options a phone has (cell bands, 802.11, WiMax, LTE), the stronger MVNO's will be. MVNO's will be the growth portion of the Japanese wireless communications industry for the foreseeable future.

  15. Threading fixed. Thanks, softbanksucks.

  16. Greeting, I think the problem is not only VOIP, It can't do int'l roaming. I guess emobile pocket wifi is better if your phone can use WiFi and want to tethering. (5,280JPY / Month : expencive!) Anyway, thanks for comment on my blogger, I have some tips to use Nexus one / HTC blah blah on Japanese carreers. Question welcome.

  17. Hi mimazda, if you have tips for using HTC products on I am guessing Softbank, please do share. Obviously, I won't be the one to benefit, but a lot of readers are constantly looking for solutions to get their overseas phones working in Japan.

    To be honest, I don't find that lack of international roaming (which I forgot to mention in the post) to be a problem. If you are roaming in for example Europe, it would be much cheaper to get a prepaid SIM for that purpose. I understand that getting prepaid SIMs in Europe is not such a big deal, but since I have never done it, I cannot confirm.

  18. Wow. I don't know what to say. You've obviously done a lot of thinking about this. More than me.

    A few comments. Just because the phone is tetherable, doesn't mean that the MVNO will allow it by contract. Occasionally, I hear stories of a carrier determining that someone was tethering and charging them the full rate for their packet usage, usually to the tune of $1000. But, you are right, since jcom is reselling docomo's bandwidth, the only way they can be cheaper is to cap the bandwidth usage by either a speed bottleneck (300 kbps) or not providing unlimited packets.

    And only if the hardware contains both a GSM and CDMA radio would you be able to switch freely between AU and docomo/softbank, since AU uses Qualcomm's 3G CDMA, which they call "win," at least until the next gen networks are out. But I get your point.

    The Japanese cell industry needs some shaking up. It is totally saturated and the handset manufactures find themselves, for the lack of any significant improvement in features of the the last few years, pumping out new "designs" for the changing of the seasons. I can understand why Nokia got out.

  19. Well, another consideration that comes into play is what exactly the MVNO's purchase from the MNO's. JCI buys data, right? They don't buy connect time. JCI pays something on the order of 3.5 yen per megabyte of data (back of envelope guess...). Or does anyone know different? I mean, what else *could* they be buying?

    If data is what JCI is buying, then that is what they should be selling. Last year, when JCI was selling their little pre-charged USB devices, it came with a certain number of minutes! Minutes! I haven't bought network time by the minute since the early days of dial-up! What an inefficiency? There was an unnecessary conversion going on in JCI that might have allowed them to opaquely inflate their profits in a new, immature market, but it will only serve to cloud their ability to predict profit margins in a more mature market. With VOIP phones, gone is the voice plan-collusion-price-hiker. And any company that does come along and sell at a more predictable profit margin is going to eat JCI's lunch byte by megabyte ;-)

    If the MVNOs' business is selling data to consumers, then it doesn't matter if I eat the data with a tethered PC or just watch youtube all day. The more data I use, the more money they make. Restrictions only made sense when there was a voice plan market that the carriers had to take care and not cannibalize with straight data sales. Those days are disappearing before our eyes now.

    The firms that can sell data the most efficiently are going to be the ones that survive. Eventually the whole market is going to be commoditized from top to bottom. Bottlenecks will be worked around. All the firms will be selling data. Only the handset makers are out of this loop as best I can figure.

  20. I've also realized that JCI may be buying data from docomo at time-dependent prices: 3.5 yen per MB from 8:00 to 16:00, 7 yen from 16:00 to 23:00, etc. This changes things a little, but no much. The time-dependent pricing could fairly easily be passed on to the consumer with JCI's cut added in. We would buy at 3500 yen monthly account, or a 5500 yen monthly account which would have draw down as we used our data with data from the more congested times drawing down our accounts faster.

  21. "if you're patient (and not a Windows phone user), is that Mozilla is also actively working on a version of Firefox for Android phones."

  22. Have a look at today's MIC announcement:

    On April 2 the gummint will hold a public hearing on the possibility of doing away with SIM-lock restrictions (or, you know, just talking about them for a while, I guess; it is the gummint).

  23. Thanks for this post!
    I just arrived in Japan and will be a ryuugakusee here for the next 6 months.
    From the Japanese input tools and dictionaries to the maps applications, my G1 is immensely helpful in travel & this is exactly what I was looking for.

    However, (as my Japanese is somewhat limited) I can't seem to figure out where to go to actually purchase one of these U300 sim cards!? Any help would be greatly appreciated!
    Thanks in advance

    b Mobile Help Desk
    Tel: 03-5767-9111
    Hours: 9:00 to 18:00 Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays)
    E-mail: helpdesk [at] j-com [dot] (they have it spam protected, so I'll keep it thus.)

  25. Here is the product page. Sorry, no English

    Here is the sign up page. You have to agree to the terms and conditions. There are two options, credit card payment and COD (looks like the SIM will be shipped takkyubin.

    Here is the list of supported devices. Scroll down to スマートフォン

    They don't specifically list the G1, but I am guessing they have omitted any phone not officially available in Japan.

    Oddly, they list the ht-03a (docomo's magic) which is a locked handset. Even more interestingly, they say the ht-03a is only usable if it is has not been updated to android 1.5. With the 1.5 firmware, the phone was unlockable by a code generated by a particular handset's IMEI number. But after updating to v 1.6, this was no longer possible.

    So is b-mobile going to be generating unlock IMEI-based unlock codes for handsets running 1.5? Or are they going to tell customers to use a service to unlock their ht-03a. Very interesting indeed.

  26. Oh, and by the way, welcome to Japan!

  27. thanks for the links! was the one I was looking for!

    I just put in an order and will hopefully receive it by Friday.

    I'll be sure to let you know exactly how "dogg ass slow" this thing is - and if it actually works with my G1

  28. thanks for the links! was the one I was looking for!

    I just put in an order and will hopefully receive it by Friday.

    I'll be sure to let you know exactly how "dogg ass slow" this thing is - and if it actually works with my G1

  29. Do let us know how it goes. Did you understand the TOS? It has some restrictions. I meant to post this sooner, but was busy.