Friday, April 15, 2011

B-mobile "Fair" SIM data price is half Docomo's - for me

EDIT: added a new label, "Fair data cap" for all posts about testing the B-mobile Fair SIM.

Cell phone service in Japan is expensive. I have spent approximately ¥100,000 for unlimited data over the 17 billing cycles that I've owned an android handset.

However I don't need an unlimited plan given my personal usage. Until now though, the only economical way of using mobile data on a smartphone was an unlimited plan, which costs in the area of 5000 to 6000 yen per month depending on contracts, carriers, and discounts. This is because per-packet charges add up quickly, topping ¥100,000 in just one month.

I've been testing a prepaid b-mobile Fair SIM over the past few days. This SIM is officially on sale today. (See below for a quick review.) It is a data-only SIM that comes with 1000 MB of data for ¥9800 initially and ¥8350 for each 1000 MB thereafter. While the price per gigabyte is high compared to other countries, it is valid for 4 months, bringing the minimum monthly cost to about ¥2000 per month if you average only 250 MB bandwidth usage per month.

Hypothetically, if I had purchased a b-mobile Fair SIM 17 months ago, and only used 250 MB each month, three additional charges (every four months) would have been required, costing me ¥34,850, which is about one third of the total cost that I actually paid to Docomo from November 2009 to March 2011. I would have just charged the SIM at the beginning of this month, which would have me covered until August 2011. That is nearly two years of data service for ¥43,200.

But is this scenario realistic? For me, close but not quite.

I tallied my actual usage over the past 17 months, I consumed a total of forty-three million, six-hundred thirty-seven-thousand, and one-hundred fifty-one packets. (43,637,151), or in human-readable output, 5.2 gigabytes (To put this into perspective, 5 GB is the amount allowed in one month for Docomo's Xi LTE data service, without incurring additional charges.)

I primarily use Google maps, train schedule apps like jorudan, an RSS reader, and Gmail. I don't download podcasts over 3G, nor do I watch youtube or use VoIP. I do tether to my notebook but certainly not every day and not for extended sessions.

My usage is shown in the graph below. The blue is my monthly usage in gigabytes, and the green is the cumulative usage in megabytes, with points plotted every 4 months or 1000 MB, whichever comes first.

For the first eight months, I would have not used the full charge. In fact, over the first four months, I only consumed 551 MB, half of the allotted bandwidth. I used 967 MB over the next four month period. My subsequent data consumption was significantly higher and would have required a charge every two to three months. Over the 17 month period covered in these bills, I would have paid a total of ¥51,550. However, in reality I paid ¥101,745 to Docomo (17 months at ¥5985).

Voice Not Currently Included

As currently available, this would have required carrying around two devices, one for voice and one for data. At this point in time, I have no information regarding what other services with which this data SIM could be bundled. B-Mobile offers both traditional voice (talkingSIM) and a 050 IP phone service (Mobile IP Phone), though the latter is limited to only the IDEOS currently. It would be good to see this "Fair" SIM bundled with either or both of the above voice options.

The zero-five-zero IP phone would probably be the least expensive for consumers but would likely be more challenging to properly implement given the five versions of Android currently in the wild, not to mention all the carrier/maker-specific firmware builds. A traditional voice option would be easier to implement and also fix some of those niggles we see on Android, but it would likely come with relatively higher service fees.

B-Mobile FAIR SIM Performance

The SIM is just as fast as a normal Docomo SIM. In fact it is identical in outward appearance. I have used it flawlessly with skype over a 10 minute phone call. There are no filters, so I can use non-docomo handsets. The relatively slow uplink is because Docomo has suspended hi-speed uplink (HSUPA) in Kanto and Tohoku following the March 11 quake and tsunami

However it lacks a circuit switch component which causes some issues with Android firmware. First off, HTC handsets running 1.6 are incompatible. Next, the 3G icon does not display. On my ht-03a (HTC Magic) running Android 2.2, not only is no 3G icon displayed, the signal strength indicator has no signal (an "X"). On Android 2.3 and the Nexus One, the signal strength icon works as expected, as can be seen in the above and below screenshots (Gingerbread displays a green signal icons when connected to Google servers). When starting up a new browser session, the native browser throws up an alert saying there is no internet connection when there actually is, and as you can see below, the page is loading just fine.

As far as lack of features, I am not sure if this is just an issue with Android, or with HTC, or with the SIM as provided by Docomo, but I cannot use network based location and time information.


  1. Very informative post, thanks.

    I would now definitely consider carrying two devices when traveling to Japan : a dumb phone with my European SIM (so that I can be reached and send SMS from my regular number) and my unlocked Nexus One with a Fair SIM for internet access.

    While traveling with two phones might not be ideal, it's still a pretty good solution and magnitude better than dealing with prohibitive roaming fees or relying on wifi to get online (never a good idea in Japan - even in Tokyo).

    Plus, what are the alternatives? A B-mobile talkingSIM capped at 300 kbps? An Emobile hotspot? That's still two separate devices - and I think those require yearly plans so it's not really doable if you're only in Japan for a limited time.

  2. Thanks.

    This of course depends on how long you will be in Japan -or- how much data you intend to consume while you are here, since the Fair SIM will not be economical for people on short stays (unless they need the ability to consume a lot of bandwidth all at once). But yeah, you'll need two devices.

    You are correct to not rely on wifi, and technically, a b-mobile talkingSIM won't be an option because Japanese law limits them to Japanese residents.

    You'd need the regular U300 SIM, which is limited to 300 kbps. I've also been using one in a nexus one, and the limited speed is noticeable, especially since I am accustomed to a speedier connection. But it does get the job done. For 3000 yen payable in cash in the lobby of a hotel, for a short-term stay, the U300 SIM does have its advantages. I'd go so far as to say it can't be beat. It might be a bit slow to load maps, but you can always make (or download the ones I already made) offline maps and rely solely on GPS for navigation.

  3. So is Fair SIM also restricted to residents?

    As for offline maps, that's what I did last year. I used AndNav2 with Mobile Atlas Creator to download Google Maps tiles (basically the same solution you talk about in your offline maps post).

    AndNav2 is clearly obsolete now but Mobile Atlas Creator is really great and I would recommend it to everyone looking into offline maps for android. Not matter what actual app is used to browse the maps, Mobile Atlas Creator is clearly the best way to download them.

    The only thing that was missing from AndNav2 was the ability to view/display KML files.

  4. I'll need to confirm, but legally, there should be no reason why the Fair SIM would have any more restrictions than the U300 because neither have voice...

  5. Does someone cut and try this sim on Iphone4 Ipad1/2?

  6. It should work if cut down properly. B-mobile also has platinum products for that are not speed restricted for certain apps on iOS.

  7. I would have guessed I used a lot more.

    Amazon has Tokyo ec2 nodes now. Going to see how well I get by with asterisk + .jp DID provider + b-mobile. If it works out I'll strip down my softbank plan and keep the SIM for a backup, and forward my number.

    I already use a VOIP provider I ported my US cell# to for non-Japan calls. This will make call routing a lot simpler for me actually...

  8. What would you want to do with amazon. As far as I know, NTT controls DID and what you can do compared to in the US is limited.

    Is this data usage with using VoIP over the air? or mainly on wifi?

    Obviously mainly relying on VoIP for voice without an unlimited data plan is going to be expensive. The MVNO-provided 050 number consume bandwidth just as any packet would, but since they are billed separately they don't come off you data plan. This is good in that you won't eat into a 1 GB cap when making a call, but bad in that the price "per minute" is much higher than what you'd being paying per packet if you had an unlimited plan at 5000 - 6000 yen.

    This is of course why Docomo prohibits use of VoIP with the flat rate data plans. (定額データプラン)

  9. Amazon has a cloud computing service called ec2. They've recently (last few months) had a datacenter in Tokyo, making routing and latency less. Asterisk is an opensource VOIP PBX.

    The data use with VOIP is minimal. Its not nothing, if you talked 24/7 you'd see some increase, but its really not much data.

    The reason Docomo (and others) try to restrict people from using VOIP service has nothing to do with the data use, and everything to do with the exorbitant fees they charge for voice service.

  10. Does anyone have any info on how one can get a Japanese DID number. What is the best MVNO provider that allows you to receive the calls from anywhere in the world as long as you have an internet connection? The current situation of VOIP in JP is a bit of a joke as far as I can tell.

  11. @ Aaron, I complete agree that the reason for restriction of VoIP is to protect the market for voice. this is 当たり前

    My comment was related directly to the b-mobile Fair SIM. I would want to stretch the usage of it over at least 3 months. I think this would be difficult if I was solely using VoIP for voice. My US VoIP provider requires at least a 90 kbps symmetrical, relatively low latency connection, which is nothing.

    Based on 90 kbps up and down, I'd consume about 250 MB (my total target for one month if I was using a b-mobile Fair) with about 180 minutes of talking. (1 1kpbs = 1 packet = 128 bytes and so on, diving by 1024).

    Assuming I did these calculations right, for me VoIP would not be feasible with the Fair SIM, and to be, um, fair, the product is not at all being marketed at heavy users.

    @ regemailster

    It is my understanding that NTT controls the gateway with an iron fist. 050 numbers are treated as premium, meaning calling them incurs similar costs as calling an 090 or 080 cell phone number, which is just stupidandridiculous. Carriers have to charge for airtime, so of course cellular calls will incur higher charges. However that they treat IP phones numbers (outside of their own hikari denwas) the same as a cell phone, simply because they can get away with it, really pisses me off.

    @ everyone with more VoIP experience, especially with HOMEBREW VoIP (i.e., Nicholas Aaron et. al)

    This is something that really needs to be addressed on this blog but I don't have the experience and I don't have a reliable US IP to get a google voice account. Given that getting proper voice service on overseas phones will likely remain restrictively expensive, the only option is to set something up using a data plan. This blog is wanting of a post on this.

  12. @SBSdroid, while I think the rates that NTT charges are ridiculous, I think they are cheaper than calling JP number from an overseas VOIP provider. Also more importantly, for someone in JP to call you via this number, it "should" be cheaper than them calling an overseas number? So basically, I'm interested in a VoIP provider in JP that allows me to have a DID number here, and allows me to receive/make calls to/from it no matter where I am in the world. I hate how most VOIP providers here lock you down to their particular modem/handset. I would appreciate if someone has some info on a VoIP provider along this line.

  13. @regemailster : Currently I connect to a host in the US for my US DID, it works well. I had been considering getting Japanese DID already to get a 03 number as well as to manage certain calls differently. Sending my traffic across 120ms of latency to my asterisk server in the US, only to come back over to a Japanese DID service is probably not a great plan. It would make more sense for me to move Asterisk local and connect to the US DID handoff from there, as well as to the Tokyo based DID.

  14. @SBS

    I'm on a cramped keyboard at immigration waiting, so I'll be happy to reply more thoroughly later.

    It should be said that my use case is likely not ideal for most people. Avoiding a lengthy contract and not giving my business (at least directly) to an unreasonable provider are high on my list of objectives. Finding the most economically prudent solution is not so high, and so long as I don't run the risk of getting a random hyaku-man bill I'm really fine with paying

    There is a business-grade DID provider in Tokyo called denphone. I have not yet contracted service with them, and I cannot at all vouch for their service at this time. They offer 0120 and 03 DID service, and Japan dial-out.

    The total cost of that service, plus running an ec2 instance 24/7, plus b-mobile per-gb charges, plus keeping a backup SIM with limited voice plan for a backup will likely cost me somewhere between moderately less than to the same as what I'd pay at Docomo. In months where I use voice calling more extensively, it might start to make good sense.

    For now I'm go use the b-mobile SIM to test out my experience using docomo's network. The -one- problem spot is my desk at work. Softbank truely sucks there, as does UQ wimax. I should really ditch the wimax for having made the arbitrary and stupid choice of relying on windows-specific components for authentication. That can be the topic of a whole other rant though.

    Wil lfollow-up more tonight with details on implementing asterisk DID in Tokyo, including cost estimates.

  15. You do well for a cramped keyboard. I wasn't aware that it was possible to get a 03 number. I do indeed have more to look into it.

    Rather than commenting here, how about emailing me and we can begin putting together a specific post on the topic. Be also good to get Nicholas involved (if he's listening).

    You won't be disappointed in the b-mobile SIM, though depending on your firmware, the will be some of the issues I mentioned in the post.

  16. yeah I'm listening :) just let me know how I can help.

  17. VPN to get a US IP to use GV, since we're on the topic.

  18. Oh yes I see now. If you must use asterisk and your calls will be routed by it, then having the server in the US may add a fair bit of latency. BTW, I know that they had some deals a while back where you can get one server for free for a year + an elastic IP. It's not bad to try things out.

  19. You actually only need the VPN for the signup process of GoogleVoice after that it isn't needed. But yeah I will setup a how to on configuring the VPN server.

  20. Wait, so you can pick up you ht-03a, and call a us phone number using GV even though you are coming from a Japanese IP?

  21. I haven't tried using GoogleVoice on my phone for making calls since I was not sure what the cost would be. I think the phone app calls your number and then calls the contact you are trying to call.

    I use GoogleVoice on my laptop everyday and make and receive calls to and from America for free. I do use the phone app for voicemail and text messaging though.

    Using SIPDroid you can connect GV to and use it from your phone but it hijacks your GoogleTalk connection to GoogleVoice and always shows you online to chat. I have been thinking about getting a second GoogleVoice account for SIPDroid but havn't gotten around to it.

  22. This is a list of providers, though it might be a bit dated, as the article talks about "as of 2007"

    Providers that offer "0AB - J" Telephone number are the ones that can give you a 03 number. From what I can tell so far, these seem to be restricted to fiber optic connections and are "class A".

  23. Any suggestions for a good Japanese DID provide?

  24. It would depend upon how GV is used. If you use the regular GV application, it will try to use your mobile number to connect which will be a problem because Japanese mobile number is not supported.

    However, if you forward your GV number to your GTalk and use a third party app to keep Gtalk alive on your data connection all the time - you can use your GV to receive and make calls using your US number!!

  25. I've not actually used one yet. I'm looking at a provider called denphone who can provide 0120 and 03 DID service. They are intended for businesses though and their service and cost structures will reflect that. If I go forward with them I will certainly write a review based on my experience.

  26. Just saw this today on engadget regarding vonage
    $55/month for unlimited calls to 80 countries for landline and 40 countries for mobile (Japan is included).

  27. I use the World Residential Plan for $25 a month. I have found calling mobiles to be much less reliable. There have been times when I am calling a Japanese cell phone and the call will simply not connect. I can then dial a Japanese landline and will connect fine. Go back to trying to call the mobile and nothing. I've tried for several minutes at a time with no success.

    I almost never have this trouble with calling Japanese landlines. Yeah, there are times when it gets wonky, especially when your calling some random country with spotty infrastructure. With Japan some times a call fails to connect to a landline, but if I call back it almost always connects.

    Anyway, I would be leery of signing up for a vonage plan for that price just to call mobiles based on my results of calling mobiles with vonage. I've had vonage service since 2004, I think, and the reliability of calling mobiles has always been spotty.

    A word on latency: If I call my hikari denwa IP phone from my vonage phone, there is noticeable latency but nothing that effects the conversation. Both IP phones are in Japan and on the same modem, with fiber to the premises and then a VDSL connection to my flat. (fiber → building VDSL → telelphone wire → hikari denwa router/modem → vonage router)

    It is nothing like the latency on a satellite phone, which can be impossible to talk on if the other party doesn't appreciate and accommodate for the lag. You have to start out every conversation with "I'm calling from a sat phone, there will be a large delay..." but before you can even get though that sentence, they're talking over you already.

  28. Thanks for the warning about Vonage QoS for calls to mobile. It's such a shame. Landline calls for me is useless since I only know one landline number; my in-laws!

  29. That's just my experience. Your milage may vary. I admittedly haven't
    tried it much lately due to the cost without a plan that includes
    mobile. Maybe it's better now. The most frustrating part was having to
    deal with their call center drones trying to convince me the problem
    was my ISP, which would only be the case if ALL calls failed...

  30. "Docomo has suspended hi-speed uplink (HSUPA) in Kanto and Tohoku following the March 11 quake and tsunami" - are you sure? The uplink at 426 kbps is HSUPA; remember that the basic '3G' data rate is only 384 kbps, so if you see 426 kbps, it has to be HSUPA.

    The HSUPA checker from my i-mode phone also shows it is enabled.

  31. I have a doubt
    Got a E585 ( huawei Mifi, non certified clone of docomos one) thinking to get a Bmobile U- 300 . After reading here and with the info of new "fair" plan. I come to a big doubt. Will any of them let me use skype/voip apps in order to do calls???

    Thanks in advance!

  32. Thanks for the link. I was looking at the Kanto page only.

    However, if you check with the 通信環境確認 application on an HSUPA-enabled i-mode phone, you'll see the result change as you move into and out of HSUPA-enabled cells. I don't have anything else that can confirm the status.

    Now, as to the 384 kbps issue. In a 'classic' WCDMA network without HSUPA, the maximum bandwidth available is 384 kbps - nothing can exceed that. So if you see 426 kbps, it means either bandwidth-restricted HSUPA, or bad timing (ie: the speed test duration is too short and timing distortions are affecting your result).

    Since DoCoMo have said HSUPA is disabled, let's go with the bad timing option, though I don't know why their application still indicates that it's enabled, and right now I don't have anything with a decent HSUPA diagnostic mode hanging around right now (ie: see whether the absolute grant channel is still there, and what the Node B will permit the mobile device to request).

    Also, have you ever really seen 5 Mbps throughput from DoCoMo's HSUPA network? Can't even get it from HSDPA :)

  33. I think the issue is most likely with the speed testing. I should have mentioned that the speedtest dot net app has reported an uplink in excess of 400 kbps using a bmobile u300 SIM, which is restricted to 300 kbps. So, unless I see an uplink way in excess of stand W-CDMA, I'll assume that it ain't working in Kanto. If you are me constantly had over 1000 kpbs, then I'd think it was switched on again. But I only get between 300 and 500.

    I've never gotten anywhere near a 5 Mbps uplink, which is why I said "getting closer." For the record, I've never gotten anywhere near the 7 or so Mbps they advertise for downlink. Maybe half of that at best.

    I'm still pretty sure that HSUPA isn't available in Tokyo.

  34. I saw some people asking about DID numbers for Japan. I have a 03 number I get from I think it costs about 3-4 euro/month. I forward it to my parents in the US. I also have a local Kansas City number so they can call me (forwarded to a "dumb" au keitai).

    Originally I set up a linksys ATA with an analog phone at home but I never use it...just use the forwarding. Screw Japanese voip providers and their rip-off rates.

  35. Has anybody had experience with this company ? Their FAQ says incoming calls are free while the call out rates are not too bad.

  36. I'm just about to buy B-Mobile's U300 talk+data SIM for iPhone 3 (Y3,950 per month), and would like to cut it down to micro SIM -- using a cutter from HK ebay so that I could use it in my iPhone 4. Hopefully it would all work out ok..