Saturday, April 3, 2010

Japan's four major carriers agree to unlock cell phones

Though I said I would likely not have time to look into this today, I found the time and I'll be damned. It happened. According to the Yumiuri, the meeting yesterday resulted in an agreement to unlock phones.
携帯電話端末を、通信契約した携帯電話会社経由でしか使えないようにしているSIMロックについて、NTTドコモなど携帯大手4社と端末メーカーの業界団体が2日、原則解除で合意した。
On April 2nd, the four major cellular carriers and handset maker industry group agreed to lift rules preventing Japanese cell phones from only working on a specific carrier's network.
Actually, that is not literally what that says but is the best I can do to write that sentence in English without it being long and convoluted.

Apparently, the details such as when to begin, whether to unlock existing phones, what to do about subsidized phones, etc. will be worked out later.

The positions of each of the four companies is quite interesting but not surprising:
  • Domoco said 「利用者の自由に任せるべきだ」The choice [of network] should be left to the customer. 
  • E-mobile said「利用者に選択肢を提供できるので賛成」We support [SIM unlocking] and the customer's choice.
  • KDDI said「技術的な課題があり、慎重に検討すべきだ」There is a technological problem that should be properly considered.
  • Softbank said「端末価格が高騰しかねない」This will likely result in the soaring cost of handsets.
Docomo wants in on the iPhone thing and has already expressed an interest in selling SIMs for Google's Nexus One and the iPad. E-mobile primarily sells data plans and is probably looking forward to a flood of tablet and other cellular-radio equipped data devices. AU is just left out of the party with their CDMA2000 network.

Softbank... Um, softbank...

Yeah, softbank, in my opinion has the most to lose from this. Though I am not aware of any customer satisfaction surveys (maybe KenYN is), anecdotally over my years of being in Japan, I believe that Docomo is considered by the general public to have the best network and the best service, while softbank (and vodafone before that and J-Phone before that) is considered to be inferior.

Whether this is still the case today could be debatable, but much of this opinion is likely due to the time, 10 or so years ago, when the network-to-eventually-become softbank's was indeed inferior to Docomo's. Having been a former J-Phone user, I can attest to this fact. While the networks are now using completely different technology, with much better rural penetration, reputations die hard.

According to the article, both softbank and KDDI had to give in to the pressure of Docomo, the largest carrier, as well as to Communications Minister Haraguchi, who said 「日本の孤島化を招いてはいけない」"We can't allow Japan to become isolated [in the world of telecommunications]"

Here is the text of the Yomiuri article:
SIMロック解除、携帯市場の大きな転機に

携帯電話端末を、通信契約した携帯電話会社経由でしか使えないようにしているSIMロックについて、NTTドコモなど携帯大手4社と端末メーカーの業界団体が2日、原則解除で合意した。

利用者は携帯端末を自由に選べるようになり、日本の携帯電話市場は大きな転機を迎えることになった。

急転直下

SIMロックの取り扱いについて、総務省が2日実施した意見聴取では、ドコモが「利用者の自由に任せるべきだ」と解除に応じる考えを示し、イー・モバイルも「利用者に選択肢を提供できるので賛成」と同調した。これに対し、「技術的な課題があり、慎重に検討すべきだ」(KDDI)、「端末価格が高騰しかねない」(ソフトバンクモバイル)などの懸念も示された。

しかし、最大手のドコモが解除に前向きな姿勢を示したことに加え、原口総務相が意見聴取前、「日本の孤島化を招いてはいけない」と述べ、SIMロック解除に強い意欲を示していたことから解除の流れは止められず、急転直下、原則解除の合意にこぎ着けた。

高まる利便性

解除合意により、独自の事業モデルで成長してきた日本の携帯電話市場を一変させる可能性が出てきた。

現在は、携帯電話会社がメーカーから端末をすべて買い上げ、販売店に卸している。携帯電話会社は販売店に1台当たり数万円の「販売奨励金」を払うことで販売価格を引き下げ、利用者の囲い込みを進める独自のモデルを構築している。SIMロックは、販売奨励金にかかった費用を通信料金で回収するまで解約を防ぐ仕組みとして活用され、利用者は端末を自由に選べない状況が続いていた。

海外では契約から一定期間を経た後にSIMロックを解除するか、最初からロックをかけない「SIMフリー」での販売が一般的だ。

域内の移動が活発な欧州では、国を移動するごとに通話料の安い現地の携帯電話会社に通信契約を切り替え、同じ端末を使い続ける人が多い。切り替えはSIMカードを差し替えれば済み、利便性が高い。

日本独自の慣行は、携帯電話市場の“ガラパゴス化”と揶揄(やゆ)されてきたが、SIMロック解除で利便性が高まることが期待される。

競争激化

SIMロック解除により通信会社の乗り換えが活発になり、勢力図は大きく動く可能性も指摘される。

総務省は日本市場にSIMフリーの仕組みを導入すれば「端末メーカーや通信会社の競争が激化し、通話料の値下げや魅力的な端末の開発、メーカーの競争力強化につながる」(幹部)と見ている。

SIMロックの解除を見据え、今後、通信会社やメーカーから様々なサービスや商品が発売され、利用者は選択の幅が広がりそうだ。

一方で、通信会社は人気端末で利用者の囲い込みを進める手段を失うことになるだけに、企業間競争が一段と激しさを増しそうだ。(有泉聡)

(2010年4月3日08時42分  読売新聞)

17 comments:

  1. Since you ask, here's two surveys on the relative images:

    http://whatjapanthinks.com/2009/01/21/docomo-professional-au-youthful-softbank-shoddy/
    http://whatjapanthinks.com/2008/02/28/mobile-phone-service-providers-image-in-japan/

    I haven't got anything newer than the above.

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  2. If this means that I'll be able to get an iPhone on my AU contract, I'll be happy.

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  3. Do you know what happens with prepaid. Specially the softbank one. I want to use my HTC Hero (GSM) with my softbank prepaid card. I know I can make calls and stuff. But what about the meeru houdai (unlimited mail for 300 yen). Is softbank still gonna bitch about apn and stuff?

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  4. KenYN apparently left a comment here with the following information (I got a blogger notification with the content but the comment seems to have disappeared into the disqus ether):

    Since you ask, here's two surveys on the relative images:

    http://whatjapanthinks.com/2009/01/21/docomo-professional-au-youthful-softbank-shoddy/
    http://whatjapanthinks.com/2008/02/28/mobile-phone-service-providers-image-in-japan/

    I haven't got anything newer than the above.

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  5. Right now, the iPhone is not compatible with AU's network, which is why AU is not invited to the party. There are a number of good CDMA android devices that will work, though.

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  6. I don't know about the the mail houdai with a prepaid card. I doubt it would work, though. I would be very careful with putting a regular SIM in your smartphone unless you are subscribed to iphone/x series packet houdai plan.

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  7. I doubt that will happen anytime soon. It might work if Apple does some kind of agreement with Verizon or Sprint in the U.S., but for the moment they only make GSM phones. au is CDMA-2000 I believe.

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  8. This is a very interesting development. It probably means that the likes of Sharp, Toshiba and Casio are in big trouble, and a huge new market for the foreign handset makers in Japan. Something very similar happened in 1990 with the advent of 'Dos /V' in the PC market. Basically local hardware manufacturers died that year.

    It's great news for us though. The idea world is to be able to buy the best of breed phone from wherever you can, and plug it into the best network locally. I would have gone with Docomo had they allowed me to use my handset with packet-houdai. Good thing I didn't sign up for a 2 year lock in with Softbank!

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  9. I basically agree, but wasn't it also the (Japanese) customers and their desinterest in phones which do not feature typical things such as cute animated smileys, karaoke software etc etc... It's not like smartphones haven't been available at all before.

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  10. It seems the emphasis for unlocking is so that Japanese makers can compete overseas. There is no doubt that, for years, Japanese makers were producing the best handsets. Think about the status of handsets in the US for example at around 2000 as compared to Japan. There was absolutely no comparison. Back then, though, Japanese cell networks were basically compatible with no one else's, so all that cool technology were paper weights overseas.

    And make no mistake, traditionally, Japanese makers have excelled at hardware but their software has tended to, um, suck, doesn't matter if it is a running on a computer or a phone. The suckage in general of Japanese-produced code is most evident on a computer, though.

    Now Japanese handset makers can just take android, forget about the costs and hassles of software development, and focus on what they do best: hardware.

    And even better, they get out of this horrible market that is Japan, where the market is already saturated and makers have to pump out new models with the changing seasons, even though very few new features have been added in the last few years.

    @BigAl,

    Yeah, smartphones have been around for awhile now, but it really wasn't until the iPhone that they became mainstream for the average consumer in the West.

    It is well known that in Japan, adoption of computers at home was extremely slow. Going back again to 2000, very few people that I knew had a computer at home. People just tended to use their cellphones. IMO however, now that most households have computers at home, people are more used to having better access to the internet, and when they pick up their standard-issue cellphone, the inferiority of the mobile browsers and web pages is much more apparent.

    Now enter the smartphone with a decent browser (webkit) that appeals to the masses. In Japan, the things missing from android handsets are emoji, IR, one seg, and keitai osaifu. Emoji will come - it's part of unicode. Once Japanese makers start pumping out android handsets, the missing hardware features will also come.

    So, I wouldn't necessarily say that Japanese demanded these features you mention, but perhaps just the "galapagos" cliché.

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  11. "It seems the emphasis for unlocking is so that Japanese makers can compete overseas."

    Hmm. I think the days where Japanese phone manufacturers could compete overseas was over years ago. Korea's Samsung and LG are much more global than any of the Japanese mfgrs today.

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  12. Yeah, I bet someone is kicking someone or something over that.

    The first cell phone I bought in the US was a sprint-banded LG in 2001. Cost me like $100, should have been $70 but I got shafted by the company running the best buy rebate (bastards). It was stone age compared to the zero yen phone I used in Japan. The LG was bigger, heavier, had less talk time, no color screen, only English, couldn't write a txt message locally (had to be connected and transmitting packets as you typed - probably a network issue), the list goes on.

    So the gov't hopes not to miss the boat with smartphones. You're probably right, though. Too little too late.

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  13. Let's not get to pessimistic here, barely anyone had heard of for example HTC until they hopped on the Android bandwagon. Now, at least here in Sweden, it seems like just about everyone is talking about their phones. I wouldn't have believed you if one year ago had said I'd have a phone made by Acer of all companies!
    The companies that make handsets in Japan have very strong global brand names and distribution channels already, to claim that they wouldn't, given say...a well designed Android handset, be able to leverage that to enter into the global handset market is both condescending and preposterous, you even mention Samsung and LG which has done just that with great success. The mobile phone market didn't look the same five years ago as it does today and I'd say it bloody well won't look the same five years from now. Only time will tell but I think Japanese feature-phones will go down well in Asia and Europe (if Samsung and LG can peddle shiny sparkly tween-phones with crappy UIs why shouldn't Panasonic and Casio?) and if they side with the right OS-provider (as in not Microsoft....Toshiba, you listening?) one or two of them will probably be able to put a decent dent in the smartphone market (my money is currently on Sharp).

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  14. This is in reply to Gen, right?

    You have very good points - it will be interesting to see what the Japanese handset makers can do. Hopefully it is not too little too late. It is hard not to be pessimistic when it comes to Japanese tech companies' actions have resulted in so much head scratching as people wondered just wtf they were thinking. Sony's walkman/MD/Atrac debacle is a good case in point, though quite extreme.

    Like I originally said though, android + Japanese handset maker's hardware = like a very interesting combination. Good luck to them.

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  15. so if i buy au android phone when i move to states i ca bring that and use it over there?

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  16. Not with AU since they don't use a conventional SIM card. Depending on the phone and the radio's it uses you might be able to use a phone form softbank or Docomo if you get it unlocked. 

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    ReplyDelete