If you read nothing else on this page, read this: Staff in Docomo/AU/Softbank/Emobile shops have no special knowledge or ability to change the way corporate HQ does business. They often have no power to remove disputed charges from your bill and probably have no real avenue to conveying information to corporate. It appears that corporate has the attitude that the shop staff are lucky to have been graciously provided with a job and are treated accordingly.
Other relevant articles are:
Trying to get an unlocked phone working on Docomo is a waste of time
Japanese MVNOs to the rescue with reasonably priced data plans
Data speed comparison between Docomo and Softbank
Docomo access point names (APN)
Real world test of B-mobile Fair SIM
Docomo Xi LTE plans for fiscal year 2011
Unlockable and tetherable: Docomo summer 2011 lineup
Comparison of all b-mobile SIMs
Softank Ala Carte SIMs for unlocked phones
This is meant as a service to the foreign community and is provided with no warranty, guarantee, or anything of the sort. Use at your own risk and when in doubt confirm with other sources or ask questions.
Mobile phone common sense in JapanBackground
In the mid 1990s, when cellphone usage in the US for example was extremely low and required paying a fortune to purchase and use a literal brick of a phone, mobile phones were quickly spreading to all segments of the population in Japan. For much of the last decade, Japan was widely regarded as having the most advanced infrastructure and handsets.
The typical Japanese cellphone today is of a "clam shell" design and is often referred to as a "feature phone" or "Galapagos keitai," due to the rich set of features and functionality that was developed in isolation from the rest of the world. By the late 1990s, all carriers had introduced proprietary platforms for providing mobile internet and e-mail, in addition to SMS, to handsets.
The explosion in smartphone popularity in Japan, driven primarily by Apple's iPhone (though the original Android-based Xperia X10 quickly became Docomo's best selling smartphone ever - at the time), raises questions regarding the future viability of the standard feature phone, which offer neither applications of comparable quality nor the full internet at a reasonable price. (Most phones include a "PC site viewer application, often Mobile Opera, but packets used viewing the real internet are not subject to unlimited data discounts and are bill at the full rate). However, the iPhone and some Android handsets lack many popular features, such as infrared, one-seg TV tuners, and RFID-based payment systems for train fares, etc.
A number of Android handsets have been development domestically to bring some of these features to smartphones. A consortium of handset makers and Docomo are also currently developing a linux/symbian-based OS (WTF?), that may or may not be compatible with Android (whatever that means), is expected to be available around the end of 2011, and will be offered to overseas makers. [This literally has FAIL written all over it - IMHO handset makers should stick to making the hard and leave the development of the soft to others. Why not take Android and modify it to do what they want? Since Android is licensed under the proprietary-code friendly Apache license, as opposed to the GPL, they don't have to publish any source code they modify, as long as it doesn't touch the GPL'd linux kernel.]
Today, the three major carriers platforms are i-mode, ezweb, and yahoo! keitai for Docomo, AU, and Softbank respectively. These platforms are incompatible between carriers, so if a softbank phone were unlocked and used on Docomo, that phone would not be able to browse mobile-specific websites or send and receive email. It would be limited to voice and SMS transmission, which would not be a problem for most of the world, but in Japan, sending emails between phones appears to be a much more common means of communication than calling. This is probably because of the high cost of voice service (see below), and the inability to send SMS to handsets on a different network. (Japan now has cross carrier SMS.)
Unlike the US but similar to many locations in Europe, incoming calls are billed to the caller, who pays for the network time of both parties. While the basic plans can be inexpensive, they typically contain very few included minutes and extremely high charges for overage. An exception is Softbank's white plan which includes zero minutes but free calls to other softbank phones except between 9PM and 1AM with any other calls be charged at ¥21/half minute. All carriers now offer unlimited family calling plans.
Someone coming from the US would expect to see the number of minutes in their plan subtracted from the number of minutes actually used, with the remaining number of minutes being charged at the set overage rate, with all fees clearly listed. Japanese carriers do not indicate directly the actual number of minutes used; this must be calculated by the customer based on knowledge of the rate for excess minutes, which is also usually not displayed. A typical bill will show an extremely high number, which would have been the bottom line if no rate plan was applied. For example, If a rate plan allows for ¥4000 worth of included calls, and the customer actually used ¥10,000 worth of calls, ¥10,000 would be displayed, ¥4000 would be subtracted resulting in ¥6000 plus the basic fee for the rate plan. The same approach is often used for displaying data charges.
This is probably because the government stays relatively uninvolved in regulating carriers with respect to customer treatment.
2008 changes to billing
Up until around 2008, the "1 yen keitai" was quite common in Japan. Problem was that the marketing was misleading because the real price of the phone was paid in jacked-up monthly service fees. So someone who uses the same phone for an extended period of time ends up subsidizing the purchases of those who consider a cell phone to be a fashion accessory and buy a new one with the changing of the seasons.
The government released a set of guidelines changing billing practices and killing off the 1-yen keitai in its previous form, resulting in a sharp drop in handset sales, shown by this chart from Softbank. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Communications often releases guidelines that the carriers are not officially required to follow. Unofficially, everyone is expected to follow the guidelines and, to date, everyone has.
(NOTE: Handsets that were purchased prior to the rules going into effect are STILL subject to the higher service fees today, and will be forever, so if you have a phone bought prior to 2008, you will save money on your monthly bill by buying a new one.)
Present business model
This did not change as of fiscal (April) 2011 when Docomo half-assedly implement the MIC SIM unlocking guidelines.
According to Softbank's SIM lock presentation, carriers shoulder the cost of handset development. Most handsets are produced by domestic makers exclusively for carriers. Apparently, much of the flow of money centers around the selling of handsets. Each carrier releases a new lineup of phones each season, and competition between carriers is primarily centered around which one offers the most desirable handsets.
Governmental interference resulting in decreased sales of handsets has not been traditionally welcomed by the carriers. The reason that Docomo is in support of unlocking is most likely because they do not carry one of the most desirable handsets in Japan today, the iPhone.
The handset market is basically saturated.
Smartphones in JapanDisadvantages of smartphones in Japan
The disadvantages are quickly disappearing, though much of the following is still applicable.
- On the software side, the current generation of smartphones are incompatible with carrier specific platforms for walled-garden internet and disaster announcements. Compatibility with carrier-provided email is also limited.
- Softbank's S! Mail (@softbank.ne.jp) is available on all softbank smartphones except for the HTC Desire, though a modified MMS.apk has been created that spoofs the iPhone's user agent to allow sending S! Mail with this handset.
- The iPhone has an additional standard IMAP account (@i.softbank.jp) that can be accessed with a mail client address.
- Docomo will be providing carrier mail (@docomo.ne.jp) to select smartphones with SP Mode and already offers a "mopera" account.
- Emails between members of a family plan incur no additional fees when all parties are using feature phones, but, because the free email is limited to usage of the carrier platform (e.g., i-mode), email sent to a smartphone is treated as normal packet usage, even for the iPhone's i.softbank.jp address (see note 2 here).
- Some mobile sites include location services that are only compatible with carrier platforms (e.g., the post office mobile site can use a phone's GPS to display the closest branch or ATM), but this is likely to change as specific applications are developed.
- Email sent from smartphones to feature phones mail may be bounced by default depending on the recipient's spam filter settings, which often block all mail not sent from a docomo.ne.jp, ezweb.ne.jp, or softbank.ne.jp address, requiring recipients to "white list" smartphone addresses on an individual basis or loosen their spam settings. This includes the iPhone i.softbank.jp address.
- On the hardware side, many smartphones do not include an infrared transceiver for sharing contact informatioin (赤外線セックス), a one-seg TV tuner, an IC-card for making payments with your phone (携帯お財布), as well as other common features like pedometers, solar panels, and water proofing. As domestic makers begin releasing more Android-based smartphones, expect to see some of the features included. For example, many of the phones in Docomo's summer 2011 lineup include these features.
- B-Mobile (MVNO)
- Docomo (from April, 2011)
Which phones can be used
- Phones displaying Japanese certification either stamped directly to the phone or on the screen.
- Phones that support W-CDMA 2100 Mhz.
- iPhone (850, 900, 1900, and 2100 MHz
- LIST OF COMPATIBLE PHONES PENDING
Why can Softbank be used?
All Japanese carriers attempt to prevent unauthorized handsets, i.e., any device they did not sell you from connecting to the unlimited data plans. Some carriers do a better job than others. Softbank controls access through a user name/password scheme. The password is easily google-able (which is not a good thing, since Softbank could change the password).
As of July, 2011, Softbank now officially allows unlocked phones on their data network, though they are still not unlocking phones.
Docomo's method for restricting non-branded phones
While an unlocked phone is fully capable of working on their network, it is prohibitively expensive to do so because the "biz-houdai" unlimited data APN is filtered by IMEI number, even for people who have properly subscribed to the unlimited data plan. You can only connect to the mopera APN, which adds an additional ¥4,200 to the monthly bill. The reason for this is non-branded, unlocked phones are likely able to tether.
Essentially, think of it as Docomo has done a better job than Softbank obtaining the goal of not allowing non-branded devices from using unlimited data.
However, Docomo allows data-only tablets that are compatible and certified for use in Japan on their network at the same data cost as smartphones. Tethering from a data-only tablet is also allowed for no additional cost. There is no immediately apparent logical reason for this.
AU's method for restricting non-branded phones
AU, along with Sprint and Verizon in the US CDMA-2000, while most carriers use W-CDMA, which is an evolution of the GSM standard and was originally developed by Docomo. Chances are your phone is not compatible with AU's network.
Even if it were compatible, the SIM cards used by AU 3G phones are actually locked to one specific device (according to KDDIs SIM lock presentation). It is not even possible to switch an AU SIM card from one AU device to another.
Frequencies in Japan3G
- Docomo: W-CDMA; 800, 2100 MHZ
- AU: CDMA-2000; 800, 2100 MHz
- Softbank: W-CDMA; 2100 MHz
- E-Mobile: W-CDMA; 1700 Mhz
- Docomo: 1500, 2100 MHZ
- AU: 800, 2100 MHz
- Softbank: 1500 (DC-HSDPA), 2100 MHz
- E-Mobile: 1700 Mhz
Procedure for using an overseas phone with DocomoMain article: Trying to get an unlocked phone working on Docomo is a waste of time
Using an overseas phone on Docomo is not recommended because of the high price of data, which is over 10,000 yen. Only phones that appear on an official list compiled by Docomo of will be allowed access to the biz houdai APN and reasonable data rates. Phones that are incapable of tethering will be on the list. No phones are on the list because phones that 1) unlocked are 2) generally capable of tethering.
Procedure for using an overseas phone with B-MobileMain article: Comparison of all b-mobile SIMs
B-Mobile has no retail stores and is therefore a very low overhead operation. They offer the least expensive plans in Japan. Registration is done over the internet. They offer several products:
- B-mobileSIM U300 for data only
- talkingSIM for voice and data
- B-mobile FAIR 1GB over 120 days SIM
- Aeon exclusive SIMs for data only (post paid by credit card), each compatible with b-mobile VoIP.
- Plan A ¥980/month (100 kbps - no streaming)
- Plan B ¥2980/month (400 kbps - no streaming)
- Plan C ¥4980/month ("carrier speed -steaming allowed)
The data-only U300 SIM is prepaid for 1/6/12 months and may be purchased with cash on delivery and is an option for anyone with an address at which deliveries can be received. HTC handsets running Android 1.6 do not work and must be either upgraded to 2.x or downgraded to 1.5. A new radio does not need to be flashed. Only Japanese certified phones are officially supported but B-mobile customer service is very helpful even to people without certified phones. The data-only SIM lacks a circuit switch component of SMS and voice) which may cause the 3G icon not to display, even though 3G is in fact connected.
The voice and data SIM requires a credit card and proof of residency in Japan. Only Japanese certified phones are officially supported. Because this SIM contains a circuit switch component, the 3G icon and other issues (Android 1.6) may be alleviated.
B-mobile also offers a 050 VoIP service for the IDEOS handsets, which is now offered standalone, though performance can only be guaranteed on the ideos. MVNO BlueSIP offers a standalone service that is usable with the U300 data SIM for Android and iOS. NTT Communications also offers a VoIP service.
Procedure for using an overseas phone with SoftbankSoftbank will now officially sell ala carte SIMs for unlocked phones that support 2100 MHz, except for iPhones, apparently due to way Apple handles APNs. The phone is supposed to be certified for use in Japan, but I can imagine that some shops may not care/notice if a phone is not certified.
If you can't get a SIM through official channels, you must have a softbank plan for a regular feature phone, and then switch the data plan to the unlimited plan for smartphones, set the proper APN on the smartphone, yank the SIM from the softbank phone, and slip it in the smartphone. (NOTE1: a compatible "dumb"phone with no need for a data plan can be used by simply slipping in the Softbank SIM card. NOTE2: if you are slipping a black iPhone SIM into another phone, you don't need to do steps 1-4 because you are already subscribed to the proper plans)
- Start service with any phone on softbank, this includes "feature phones" (the galapagos keitai with all the famously Japanese functions)*.
- Subscribe to the S! Basic Pack (¥300/month + 5% - soon to be 10%? - tax).
- Subscribe to the Unlimited Packet Discount S plan.
- Change you data plan to the Unlimited Packet Discount for Smartphone plan (¥1029 - ¥5985/month).
- Sign up for online billing (¥100/month + 5%).
- Access the My Softbank site from a PC **.
- Click on the green icon 料金プランや割引、ご契約住所の変更など各種お申込みはこちら (Service plans and discounts, address change, all service applications).
- Click on the button next to "割引サービス" (Discount Services).
- Select the second option " パケット通信料割引サービス変更 例）パケットし放題など"
- Change the plan to パケットし放題 for スマートフォン. (Unlimited Packet Discount for Smartphone).
- The gray/silve SIM uses the "opensoftbank APN"
- The black iPhone SIM uses the "smile APN"
** It is possible to have a softbank rep at the store or on the phone change your plan to the smartphone plan, but it is easier to do it online because the rep will invariably not understand why you want the more expensive smartphone plan when you don't have a smartphone, and it would not be recommended to tell them what you are doing.
*** Google for the proper password but do not post it here or on other random sites, as it got too widely known and changed once, leaving everyone screwed. This is unlikely to happen again as it would be a nightmare to update everyone's phones to work again, but it is still a bad idea to go around randomly posting the f***king password.
Can Softbank know that I am using a different phone?
Yes, the can easily see that the IMEI number of your phone is different and could shut you down as a result. But the fact is that there have been no reported cases of this happening, so it appears that Softbank is not, for the time being at least, actively looking for this.
Common and expensive problems with Softbank
If you set the proper APN but fail to subscribe to the correct plan, data will work and you will receive a huge bill. If your phone is capable of tethering, you also run the risk of getting a huge bill because the packet discount is not applicable when tethering. In practice light tethering is OK, but don't be stupid and download 1080p movies using bit torrent.
Softbank should send you an SMS if you exceed a certain amount of data charges, but some people report not getting this promptly. At full packet rates, 100 MB costs nearly ¥70,000. (100 MB*1024 = 102,400 KB*1024 = 104,857,600B/128 = 819200 packets * ¥0.084 = ¥68,813) Assuming that bit torrent movie is 1GB you'd pay ¥704,643 for the download.
If you ever plan on owning another cell phone in Japan under your own name, you have no choice but to pay the bill. Reports are mixed regarding the success of negotiating for a reduced bill.
Confirming proper configuration with Softbank
Softbank recently changed their billing practices so that it is no longer difficult to tell if your phone is correctly setup.
Sim locking in JapanMain article: Japanese mobile phone SIM unlocking procedures
Is the government going to require carriers to unlock phones?
No, the government is only going to urge carriers to unlock phones, leaving the decision up to each carrier. Only phones sold from 2011 are subject to this recommendation. Docomo and E-mobile supported unlocking, AU and Softbank were against it. For reasons listed in this series of posts, it is unlikely that Softbank will unlock any phones at first. All carriers are expected to comply with MIC guidelines, even though they are not required, and all have complied with the various MIC guidelines to date.
Perhaps Softbank wins a concession from the government (like an allocation of the 800 MHz band)?
If all carriers voluntarily unlock phones, will the iPhone be included?
Softbank CEO Son has said he has no intention of unlocking the iPhone. For example, AT&T in the US unlocks all phones except the iPhone because lock status is maintained by Apple who will not unlock an iPhone unless forced to do so by the government. Since these are only guidelines, officially at least, it is hard to say what will happen with the iPhone.
Can Japanese smartphones be unlocked
Most Docomo Android firmware contains additional lock protections. A simple IMEI-based will likely not work. Docomo will unlock all phones that went on sale after April 1, 2011. Any phone introduced prior to that date is ineligible, even if it was purchased after April 1. To unlock these phones, custom firmware must be flashed and then an IMEI based code used.
LTE in JapanWhen will LTE be available in Japan?
According to KDDI's presentation, the plans for each company regarding the start of LTE service are:
- Docomo: 12/2010
- Softbank: Unannounced
- E-mobile: 7/2012
Prospects for an LTE iPhone 5 on Docomo
Unsure. While Docomo will have the only LTE network in Japan when the next iPhone is released, presumably next July, there is no guarantee that it will support LTE, though this is highly likely.
More importantly, the 7/2011 planned activation of Softbank's DC-HSDPA network coincides with the presumed released date of an LTE iPhone 5.
Should I buy a new phone now or wait for LTE
It depends on how desperate you are for a phone now and if you are locked into a contract with a carrier other than Docomo. Docomo will introduce an LTE phone in Winter 2011.
Comparison of Next Gen NetworksSee here for updated information.
While all carriers are eventually moving to LTE, Docomo was the first to start service with their Xi (pronounced "Crossy") network. Plans for FY2011 include roll out in Sapporo, Sendai, Kanazawa, Takamatsu, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka and 20% population coverage by April 2012. Once fully implemented, LTE will be a true 4G network with speeds up to 100/50 Mbps down/up. For now Xi is a "3.9G" network. The other carriers will be making improvements to their existing 3G networks prior to rolling out LTE service.
Softbank and Emobile, the number three and four carriers, will employ dual carrier waves to boost downlink speeds, using a standard first proposed by Emobile called "dual cell high speed downlink packet access (DC-HSDPA). AU, Japan's second largest carrier and only carrier using CDMA2000, plans to introduce a multi-carrier network using up to three carrier waves (click here for Japanese, or here for an English machine/MyGengo translation).
For now, AU's network will be by far the slowest but will launch simultaneously with the winter-spring line up of handsets and will have a number of handsets that support the increased downlink speed, including some androids (IS04 and IS06). The other carrier's launch products are all corporate-oriented data dongles or mobile routers, no phones. The only price I've seen so far is for Emobile's D41HW mobile router for ¥41, 580 (¥19,980 with 2-year contract... ouch).
WIN High Speed
EV-DO Rev A
Speed (u/d) Mbps
9.2 / 5.5
37.5 (75) / 12.5 (25)*
42 / 5.8
42 / 5.7 **
none (10 GB)††
¥2,625 per 2 GB
IS06, X-RAY, S005, IS04, G11, S006
007Z, 004Z, 005HW
Initial (subsequent) population coverage
Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka (7% 3/2011; 20% 3/2012; 40% 3/2013)
Major Cities (40-50% 3/2011)
Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka (12% 3/2011; 60% 6/2011)
15 MHz [5x3]
5 (10) Mhz [5x1(5x2)]
10 MHz [5x2]
10 MHz [5x2]
* 75/25 Mbps will be accomplished with dual-carriers in select indoor locations.
** Based on highest uplink of current handsets. DC-HSDPA seems to only increase downlink. Softbank has not announced uplink speed.
† Assuming 2-year contract and campaign pricing.
†† No cap until 5/2014.
‡ No official start date, but service is supposed to start with release of compatible winter/spring lineup handsets.