Friday, July 8, 2011

NTT Communications starts "050 Plus" VoIP service for smartphones

Simply put, VoIP in Japan has been a joke.

Before getting to mobile, consider for a moment VoIP service in the home as a replacement for POTS (plain old telephone service). Yes, it is less expensive for the consumer, but not nearly by the amount it could (should?) be. The entity that benefits the most from IP phone service is not the user but the service provider, who enjoys both the slashed cost of overhead and premium product pricing.

VoIP was first introduced to Japan in 2001 by Masayoshi Son's Yahoo BB, much to the displeasure of NTT, who, up until recently was able to sell physical phone lines (a concept I never fully understood) for upwards of $1000US. The traditional Gatekeeper of Japanese Telecommunications must be in a very uncomfortable position these days. While they certainly didn't benefit from Masayoshi Son's meddling, they were at least relevant.

Not this time.

Things have been changing like mad this year, in exciting and unprecedented ways that are primarily the result of JCI's arbitrated opening of Docomo's data networks to "virtual" carriers. The MIC is finally realizing that innovation is sorely needed in communications but the traditional players have no incentive to bring it. Now we have a number of innovative mobile startups, such as mobile VoIP provider BlueSIP. But all this is limited to mobile and potentially threatening to NTT's home data and telephone services.

So rather than sit by quietly, NTT began offering a VoIP softphone service from July 1st. The service is called 050Plus and is initially for the iPhone, but with planned expansion to Android and computers from early August. The terms are attractive, though this requires the download of a specialized app, which will reduce battery life.

A larger implication of this is more force against the mobile network providers, who have a vested interest in keeping VoIP off their networks. It will be interesting to see if a critical mass of consumers will defect to the virtual operators, forcing the likes of NTT Docomo to respond competitively.

And here we thought that SIM unlocking was going to be the big deal this fiscal year.

Finally, the details of 050Plus VoIP. Either there are no initial or cancellation fees, of the information is well hidden.
  • ¥315/month
  • Free calls to not only other "050" plus users, but also to other companies like OCN top phone (total of 270 providers included)
  • ¥8.4/3 min (¥2.8/min) for all other IP Phones and landlines
  • ¥16.8/min for domestic cell phones (090, 080 numbers)
  • ¥10.1/min for domestic PHS (070 numbers)
  • From ¥9/min for to the USA (¥10 to Canada; ¥20 to Germany, UK, Australia, France, Italy; ¥25 to New Zealand)
  • Can be used overseas
  • Voicemail with email notification and .wav audio attachment
The list of providers included for free calling seems to include most of the major ones, though it does not include any MVNOs, like b-mobile. Specialized app required. Payment is by credit card only. Each registered phone number requires a separate contract. One credit card can be used for a total of five contracts. Service is limited to Japanese residents. Original Japanese iPhone 3G is supported (minimum iPhone OS 3.1.3). iPod/iPad not supported. First month free. Sustained calls in excess of five hours will be disconnected. Decompiling or reverse engineering or revealing the source code of the app is prohibited (i.e., trying to extract SIP credentials).

Docomo mobile data services prohibits VoIP, and if this specialized app is not added to b-mobile's approved apps for the platinum micro SIM data plan, the only option for the iPhone 4 may be softbank. iPhone 3G/3Gs should be able to use the Aeon Plan C SIM.

Link to manual (PDF, J but with lots of images)


  1. This is intriguing, but is there any particular benefit of using this paid service over other free services like skype? Though I suppose 315 yen is fairly negligible.

    Also this may be a stupid question but why would NTT realise a service that can't be used on their mobile arm NTTDocomo? Or are the two companies not related?

  2. It's way too complicated for me. It is the NTT group, with NTT (日本電信電話) at the top and a number of subsidiaries. According to wikipedia, NTT owns 63% of NTT Docomo. this is being released not by the parent company, but by another subsidiary, NTT Communications, though wikipedia also says that NTT communications is 100% owned by NTT, so I guess it might as well be the parent company.

    If you want to make calls to phone numbers, skype is not free. If you want you own phone number, it is even less free. I haven't looked into what it costs, but I bet that, at 315 yen/month and free calls to the major providers of 050 numbers, this will work out to be a better deal than skype for domestic calling.

  3. You will be seeing more totally unbundled a-la-carte SIP-based VoIP services being released from several additional carriers this year, some being traditional 050 as well as the new startups.

  4. Techniker TechnologeJuly 8, 2011 at 5:13 PM

    still, all these revolutions (well, at least considered from a Japanese standpoint, for the rest of the world not even worth the wiggle of an eyebrow) will still have no real big effect imho, if the mobile providers still manage to charge such outrageous fees for data on their networks. They are outrageous, or am I spoiled by the European market?.

    MVNOs are a first step, but they don't own the hardware, so as long as the big three do not stop colluding and start actually _competing_ -- and with that I don't mean Son saying nasty things on twitter -- there is still a long way ahead...

  5. Techniker TechnologeJuly 8, 2011 at 7:18 PM

    OT: latest version of Google Maps seems to have finally a working offline-function (up to 10 areas of 16km diameter downloadable). Finally time to retire RMaps ...

  6. The MVNOs of course won't eat into carrier profits with just data, but if they start pushing voip, they could disrupt what the carriers are accustomed to earning from voice...

  7. Great blog, very appreciative of all the useful information here.

    Just a short question if anyone's got a sec to answer; I'm about to ditch my softbank prepaid, and buy a cheap ideos from rakuten for 9000yen and use a b mobile data SIM with VOIP. I'm with Shinsei bank but don't have a credit card yet and I'm unlikely to get one this year as it's my first year in japan and they are reluctant due to unknown credit rating.

    Therefore is it possible to purchase the b mobile u300 data sim and VOIP service from BlueSIP without a creditcard? If not, what are my options in terms of other voip services with b mobile?

  8. The U300 can be done without a credit card. BlueSIP will require a credit card, thought. There is nothing that I am seeing that says you can't use an overseas card, but the problem then becomes that you have to send money overseas to pay the bill. If you can send lump sums, like 100,000 yen at once, then it makes sense maybe to do it, but if you had to send money every month, you'd get killed by the service charges.

  9. it seems pretty excited.. and I would anxiously be waiting for this.. and i guess SBS 2008 is doing perfectly well.

  10. Hmm, it's interesting that Docomo would prohibit VOIP while their parent sells this app. At any rate, iPod is now supported, as well as android devices. Since background apps (to the extent they can be background at all) under iOS are killed randomly and without notification, I don't expect this to work any better than Skype for incoming calls under iOS. It does work great on Android on two phones I tested (Softbank Sharp 003SH and E-Mobile Sony Ericsson Mini). It works at least somewhat on my iPhone 4 too, but the dialer is separate of course.

    Note: You can sign onto the same account with multiple phones, but only the most recently signed-in one will receive incoming calls.

  11. Skype charges over 700 yen per month for an incoming Japanese number. 050 Plus charges 315. Also, Skype's outgoing rates to Japanese cell phone numbers are higher than NTTs.

  12. According to whom? Don't get me wrong, I would like to believe you are right, but so far I have only seen two other than Skype. 050 Plus, and RStream. RStream required you to buy their phone and their service. (And now I guess they are dying because their crappy handsets are on sale everywhere in Akihabara for < 10000 yen recently).

  13. Firstly, you can get a "credit card" that isn't, through Rakuten bank (You can apply for a Visa debit card). Secondly, I would pass on the Ideos. I have one, which is now my girlfriend's router. The reason is, besides the fact that it is woefully underpowered, the battery also doesn't last long. Sony Mini can be had w/o contract for like 20,000 yen and is 10x better to use. (Or contract with eMobile, but that will cost more than b-mobile)

  14. Has anyone found a SIP provider in Japan that can provide DID? Ideally I would like to use the built-in Gingerbread or ICS SIP capability and not rely on an app like BlueSIP. I don't mind if most carriers block SIP traffic; I'd mostly be using this while on WiFi anyway.