Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Yomiuri Interview with Docomo execs on SIM unlocking

A few days ago, the Yomiuri sat down with two Docomo execs to ask about future plans and products after the company adopts the SIM unlocking guidelines from fiscal 2011. Interviewed were Kouji Furukawa, the head of the office for planning and coordination (古川浩司 企画調整室長), and Ryoukichi Takahashi, The head of the planning section (高橋亮吉 企画担当課長).

There is one sentence, the last one in the answer to the first question that I am just not fully getting because it reads to me that the other carriers (i.e., softbank) have already agreed to follow the unlock guidelines, and if they didn't, neither would have Docomo. However, I am not aware that Softbank has agreed to anything of the sort, though it was mentioned that meetings have already started for working out a strategy for handling maintenance to branded phones that are off network...
If it said 実施しないかもしれません, it would make more sense (to me at least). It would also be a bit disturbing since it would imply that Docomo would potentially back out.

Anyways, as always, this is not a translation, per se, but rather me writing in English what the Japanese means to me. Standard disclaimers apply.

The interview did not provide much in the way of new information, although the interviewer did mention that many people believe Docomo's desire for unlocking is really just a desire for the iPhone. The Docomo execs also took some swipes at Softbank's locking of the iPhone/iPad. Perhaps most interesting is, in the final question, Furukawa mentions that future competition will come down to service plans, not only their price but how easy a particular plan is to understand.

Docomo is notorious, as all J-carriers are, for making plans ridiculously complicated.  Imagine a Japan where you don't need a calculator to figure out just how many minutes you talked on the phone. (I'll believe it when I see it.)


Yomiuri: Tell us how SIM unlocking is going to work.

Furukawa: Docomo will begin selling unlocked handsets with the summer models to be announced in May, 2011. The MIC has indicated that from April, 2011, capable handsets should be unlocked. Because these guidelines are based on customer desire, there is no reason not to comply. However, if the other companies did not comply, maybe docomo would not have either.

Y: What will change with unlocking?

F: First of all, the possibility of using your domestic handset abroad will increase. With an unlocked handset, a comparatively inexpensive service contract with a local carrier is possible. Of course, the functionality of the handset will be limited. Domestically, each carrier's coverage area is different, so having a signal is most important.

Y: It has been said that the reason for for you to unlock SIMs is to bring Softbank's popular iPhone to Docomo.

F: I've heard that too, but the first priority is customer convenience and choice. The reason is to follow the MIC's clearly written guidelines. While the iPhone is most certainly selling extremely well now, I don't know if it still will be two to three years later. If we were to release a killer handset that everyone wanted, we would under no circumstances sell it locked to our network.

Investigating a convenient process based on foreign case studies

Y: What would be the best process for customers?

Takahashi: Currently, we are formulating a detailed plan while studying overseas examples. I believe the model will be one in which the customer purchases a handset from a Docomo shop, then Docomo unlocks the handset and returns it to the customer.

F: When unlocking a handset, various restrictions will be encountered. After changing carriers, the only usable functions will be voice and SMS. Proprietary services, such as Docomo's i-mode, will not function on another carrier's network. Therefore, rather than providing unlock codes over the internet, we would prefer for customers to come in person to one our our shops so we may properly explain the restrictions.

Cooperative preparations for after service are indispensable

Y: How will handset service be accomplished

T: If a customer takes an unlocked Docomo phone to another carrier, it would be extremely unkind of us to just say that customer is on their own with regards to service. So, all carriers must work out a means for servicing handsets.

F: In July, all carriers participated in our first meeting to exchange ideas. We are putting together a system with the cooperation of each carrier.

Promoting competition based on service fees

Y: With the addition of new features, won't handset prices increase?

F: While there will most likely be a service charge for unlocking, I don't expect that there will be a large increase in handset price. From now, the criteria upon which a customer chooses a carrier will not be based solely upon coverage area or handset quality, but is also likely to include the price of service plans. Indeed, a price war could result.

Y: Tell us how Docomo will position itself in the future.

F: After phones are unlocked, we expect an increase in the number of people changing carriers because customers will cease being tied to a single carrier and enjoy the use of the handset of their choice on the carrier of their choice. I think customers will support an approach that meets their demands and increases their satisfaction. I think success will come down to the fundamentals of coverage and product quality, as well as the ability to provide reasonably priced service plans that are straightforward and easy to understand.


  1. It's ambiguous to me as as well. I would read it as "if there hadn't been a directive the other three would not have implemented this, and perhaps not Docomo either."

  2. Yeah, that sounds pretty good. I left out the beginning about the guideline.

    If I would have been doing the interview, my next question would have been, "so, does this mean softbank also intends to follow the guidelines?"

  3. Another factor to consider (which a friend of mine who is doing some market research on app companies for walled garden cellphone networks brought to my attention) is that companies like Docomo and Softbank get a good 10% of all application market sales within their walled gardens. That's money they don't get from Android phones or unlocked phones from other carriers, and probably adds to the reasons why the carriers would be averse to widespread use of those phones.

    With all these reasons why the carriers would not want to be on board with unlocking, I am beginning to understand where all the guarded words and non-committal plans are coming from.

  4. And I guess that is why they want to do this:
    And also why they created the Docomo Market.

  5. Well, "voluntary" government requests often aren't. The "voluntary" bit really is shorthand for "This is the kind of thing we want, and we let you all sort out the details on your own. If the results aren't acceptable, the next step will be a costly, detailed and intrusive legal mandate. It's up to you." Same thing with "voluntary" food recalls, which the affected companies always comply with for the same reason. Not a bad system, once you get used to it.

  6. Indeed, you are correct. I also included that in the general info post. I was contacted by someone in the industry who said the same thing, that the govt always issues voluntary guidelines but everyone is expected to follow them and ultimately everyone does.

    The question is what will softbank hold out for? There could be some wrangling and whatnot, maybe landing softbank some concession (perhaps 800 MHz?)

  7. I went in to my local docomo shop with some questions about my Xperia. I asked about the 2.1 and 2.2 updates, but the rep couldn't tell me anything more than the Q4 2.1 update even though SONY Ericsson has moved that date up for the Xperia X10 and scheduled 2.2 for Q4 (can't find the link now).

    Anyway, I asked about the functionality of the docomo market and asked if there were apps there that I couldn't get in the android marketplace. The rep just smiled and shook her head and related that no one was really using the docomo marketplace. Docomo wants its customers to use it, but the customers largely don't care, and there seems to be no future in it.

  8. Hey guys! just found this blog today. Nice Blog! You don't really see lot of English blog sites that talks about Japanese cellphone industry stuff.
    Since I used to work for a US cell phone store that was owned by a Japanese person, I know how crappy the unlocked Japanese cell phones are in the US.

    frequency-(its a triband 2g. therefore reception sucks mostly everywhere you go)
    data: can't use em. locked tight so you can't change the settings

    As for Smartphones, the good this is that you can change the internet settings on it, so technically yes you can use the phone abroad. but nobody has considered that since the 3g frequency doesn't match with the other countries, you're going to be on a
    2g frequency internet speed with a triband connection....
    Plus, since the internet setting for softbank and docomo has a username and password and the password is encrypted, a normal person can't reset the internet settings back when they want to come back to the original carrier... Complete BS

    conclusion: why even bother then????