Wednesday, December 28, 2011

NTT Docomo to partner with handset makers to produce handset chips

I previously heard mumblings that domestic carriers were interesting in implementing "APN locks" in response to the MIC's SIM unlock guidelines. Such a lock would prevent changing the APN to use another carrier's network, even if the phone was unlocked. However, it would likely be at the software level and therefore circumventable by someone properly motivated.

But what if the carrier produced the actual silicon?

Which is just what is going to start happening. NTT Docomo, who pushed hard for SIM unlocking in Japan - only to turn around and effectively bar unlocked handsets from their FOMA (3G) network, is getting into the semiconductor business. Perhaps I'm seeing this from an overly pessimistic point of view, but the last entity I want making my hardware is an old, entrenched company that is under unprecedented pressure to compete in a market that it formerly owned (essentially).

"Communications Platform Planning Corporation" [My translation of 通信プラットフォーム企画 株式会社, not NTT Docomo's] will be a joint venture between five domestic and foreign handset makers, with NTT Docomo being the sole investor to start (¥450 million). The company should be established by mid January 2012. The handset makers are expected to be onboard by the end of fiscal 2011 (March 2012), though exact amounts of their pending investments have not been disclosed.

The company's efforts will focus on efficiency, miniaturization, and LTE, with the resulting silicon incorporated into both domestic and internationally available devices.

Handset partners are:
  • Fujitsu
  • Fujitsu Semiconductor
  • NEC
  • Panasonic Mobile Communications
  • Samsung Electronics
Via Juggly; NTT Docomo Press Release

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Docomo swaps SP Mode Mail address

Update, It seems that this was caused by overloaded servers.

On Tuesday 12/20, a portion of NTT Docomo SP Mode Mail customers had their mail address swapped randomly with other users. This incorrect address was displayed to recipients of mail sent by affected customers. Replies were also directed to the incorrect mail addresses. Thus far, NTT Docomo has received 103 complaints of incorrectly set addresses. The reason for the problem is under investigation.

To verify your address, from mail settings go to other (その他) and then address. If the wrong address is displayed, reboot your phone to restore the proper address.

NTT Docomo has partially suspended SP Mode services in response. See the announcement for the fully list of stopped services, but it is probably a bunch of stuff that no one reading this blog uses anyway.

(I bet when Docomo implemented their carrier mail system 10 years ago, the way they did it probably seemed like a good idea. If you looked at the specification today, you'd probably ask WTF were they thinking.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Important points when switching a Docomo FOMA handset to a Xi contract

I'f you've been following my Google+ page, you'll know that a week ago I switched my FOMA (3G) plan to a Xi (LTE) plan, which includes tethering at no additional cost.

So far, I have not incurred any unexpected data fees. As of yesterday, my online statement indicates no irregularities in my bill, and the campaign rate of ¥4,200 for 7 GB of bandwidth is being properly applied. Nonetheless, I will wait until my December bill arrives before making a post on how to switch over to Xi. If all is OK (and it had better be or my wife is going to kill me and you'll never hear from me again), I'll post a detailed description of what I did to change my FOMA plan to Xi.

In the meantime, here is my reasoning for switching, followed by a list of points to consider.

Motivation for Switching to Xi

For the past 8 months, I've been carrying around two phones, one with a NTT Docomo FOMA SIM for voice, and one with a bmobile FAIR SIM for data. The reason for doing this was the desire to use a better phone than my NTT Docomo ht-03a (HTC Magic). If you recall, I wasted several hours and ¥500 back in April trying to get my unlocked Nexus One working on Docomo's network, only to give up due to the exorbitant fees levied on non-Docomo-branded handsets (in excess of ¥10,000, now reduced to only about ¥8,000, not including basic voice fees, etc.).

The next best thing was using a bmobile FAIR data-only SIM with the N1 and shutting off data completely on the ht-03a. This gave me the best of both worlds, a Docomo family voice plan and a newer/faster/better handset for data with tethering, all at a reasonable price - my total mobile costs were about ¥4,000 each month. However, carrying two phones is less than ideal for a number of obvious reasons.

Now, I can use the N1 for voice, data, and tethering with an Xi contract for no additional costs. I am also not breaking the terms of the contract in any way. The N1 is even properly certified for use in Japan, including the (aftermarket) battery. As a final note, I was very satisfied with the bmobile SIM and would recommend JCI's talkingFAIR or talking 1 GB Flat Rate SIMs to anyone who is otherwise not eligible for a family calling plan.

Points to consider before switching

If you have a relatively new Docomo handset, there is little reason to switch to Xi, and it could get expensive if the phone is subsidized.

This is the flyer I received from the staff at the Docomo shop where I changed my contract. An OCR'd PDF is here. Some of this is obvious, some of it not so, and some of it may be wrong, as I can confirm that the ht-03a does in fact work. *
  • NTT Docomo will not guarantee that the flat rate will be applied, leaving open the possibility of per KB charges at ¥0.41/KB. (This information is not included on the flyer but comes via calls by the staff to the internal help desk.) **
  • FOMA handsets will not support high-speed LTE data or contents exclusively for Xi handsets.
  • Monthly handset subsidies will cease (i.e., 月々サポート), and if either "handset purchase support" (端末購入サポート) or "basic purchase support" (ベーシック購入サポート) is currently applied, a cancellation fee will be assessed.
  • Xi Price plans and data flat rates will be applicable.
  • The following FOMA handsets cannot be used with Xi*: HT-01A, HT-02A, HT-03A, HT1100, M702iS, M2501, M1000, M702iG, NM850iG, NM705i, NM706i, BlackBerry Bold, BlackBerry Bold 9700, BlackBerry Bold 9780, BlackBerry Curve 9300.
  • Users of "Mopera U" and "Business Mopera Internet" should manually set the APN to (consult the owner's manual for instructions).
  • Users of third party ISPs may experience difficulty connecting to the internet or incur additional fees. Confirm if this is the case with your ISP before contracting Xi service.
  • Users who switch back to FOMA from Xi will be ineligible for the "Value" voice plans unless purchasing a new FOMA handset (which will nearly double the price of the basic fee).
  • A new Xi SIM costs ¥2,100, though it seems I was only charged ¥2,000 ¥2,000 + 5% tax = ¥2,100. (This information is not included on the flyer.)
* I can confirm that my ht-03a works perfectly fine with the Xi SIM. I even showed it to the staff at the shop (who really liked my splash screen, by the way). The staff member was aware of the custom ROM. He commented that perhaps it works but could cause billing issues. However, since my bill is so far normal, this doesn't appear to be the case.

** Technically, I don't see how this could happen unless Docomo specifically makes it happen, or you set some funky APN.

Original Japanese from flyer follows:

FOMA端末では、高速通信や一部の Xi端末向けコンテンツをご利用いただけません。

くFOMAから契約変更する際、 FOMA契約において月々サポート等にご加入中の場合 について〉
  • 月々サポート適用中の場合は、適用が終了いたします。
  • 端末購入サポート適用中の場合は解除料がかかります。
  • ベーシック購入サポート適用中の場合は、解除料がかかります。
料金プラン及びパケット定額サービスは、 Xi専用プランとなります。

くご利用いただけない FOMA端末について〉 以下の FOMA端末については、ご利用いただけません。
HT-01A、HT-02A、HT-03A、HT1100、M702iS、M2501、M1000、M702iG、M850iG、NM705i、NM706i、BlackBerry Bold、BlackBerry Bold 9700、BlackBerry Bold 9780、BlackBerry Curve 9300

く iモード・ sp モード以外のインターネット接続サービスの利用について〉
当祉の「moperaU」 又は「ビジネスmoperaインターネット」をご契約の方は、APNを「」に手動で設定して下さい。設定方法は各機種の取扱説明書をご覧下さ い。
他社プロパイダをご契約の方は、FOMA 端末で Xiサービスを利用することで、接続できなくなる場合や、接続時聞に応じて別途のプロパイタ利用料が発生する場合がありますので、必ず事前にご契約プロパイダヘご確認下さい。

Xi 契約をされたのちに、FOMA端末の購入を伴わずFOMAサービスヘ契約変更する場合 は、バリュープランをご選択いただけません。

本書の内容は、2011年11 月24 日現在のものです
株式会社 NTTドコモ

Friday, December 16, 2011

NTT Docomo begins competing directly with Japanese MVNOs

Apparently feeling pressure from JCI, the company behind the popular b-mobile and Aeon SIMs, NTT Docomo recently announced a 128 kbps data plan that doesn't cost in excess of ¥5,000. The pricing and data speed put it in direct competition with the 100 kbps Aeon Plan A.

To put this into perspective, Docomo's previous price point for 128/64 kbps (down/up) was an astounding ¥5,985. To compete with JCI, Docomo has had to drop the price of this plan by nearly 600%.

The link to this old plan is likely to die, but here is a writeup.
While Docomo may have conceded on price point, they are still loathe to do away with their 2-year, automatically renewing contracts, which are standard with all Japanese carriers. In addition, Docomo is also including the (bogus) ISP fee on top (waived during the campaign). And, the base price of service is more. The Aeon SIM is the clear winner in this fight.

Aeon Plan A
NTT Docomo
100 kbps (down and up)
128/64 kbps (down and up)
2-year, auto renewal
ISP charge
¥525 (waived)

If you are wondering why Docomo would even allow JCI to do this, since JCI is in fact using Docomo's FOMA network. The answer is simple. JCI won the right to do so in government arbitration. Before that, all deals were done behind closed doors. Now anyone can become an MVNO using Docomo's FOMA and Xi networks, and the wholesale terms and pricing are set and in the open.

There is one place where Docomo could potentially best JCI. The SIM cards that Docomo provides to MVNOs lack particular components that cause the infamous niggles such as lack of signal bars and 3G icons, which in turn results in excessive battery use by the cell phones radio as it boost power searching for a signal (even though it has a signal). Docomo could provide it's own customer with SIMs that don't cause this problem, but I seriously doubt they will. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

AEON b-mobile SIMs now have voice plans

The postpaid, AEON exclusive b-mobile SIMs now support voice. The terms are the same as the AEON data-only SIMs: residency required and payment via credit card. A 1-year contract is required, but it does not automatically renew. No microSIM are available.

Current users of AEON data-only plans won't be able to continue using the same SIM card.

From the product page, here is a table showing the potential pricing.

Total minimum monthly cost
Voice Plan S Voice Plan M Voice Plan L
1,290円 2,100円 3,675円
Data Plan A 980円 2,270円 3,080円 4,655円
Data Plan B 2,980円 4,270円 5,080円 6,655円
Data Plan C 4,980円 6,270円 7,080円 8,655円

T-Mobile US's most expensive prepaid smartphone plan costs less than Japan's cheapest postpaid plan

On a recent visit to the US, I purchased a T-Mobile prepaid SIM card for use in my Nexus One. The entire process took less than 10 minutes, and I was quite satisfied with the service. I'd certainly use them again in the future.

However, most Japanese phones won't get 3G service because T-Mobile uses UTMS band IV (AWS), which splits uplink and downlink between bands roughly at 1700 and 2100 MHz. In Japan, Docomo and Softbank use 2100 for both, while Emobile uses only 1700. The only other US carrier that would potentially work with Japanese phones is AT&T, but they use 1900 MHz. (Nicholas thought his Galaxy S2 supported this frequency, but he is in the US right now, languishing on 2.5G EDGE.)

Prepaid Plans

Currently, T-Mobile offers both 1) monthly prepaid and 2) daily plans. I only needed service for about two weeks, so the daily plan was the best option. I got unlimited voice and SMS, and 200 MB of data per day for $3/day. Extrapolate over a month, and this would be $90, which is the most expensive way to get a month of service from T-Mobile. This converts to ¥7,200 (~ ¥80 to the dollar), which equates to the bare minimum charged by Japanese carriers. (The only way to pay less in Japan is to not use the phone at all.) The 200 MB would get around 6 GB/month of data, which is comparable to Xi's 7 GB.

To be fair, Japan's urban 3G coverage is excellent. In contrast, while in a major US city, my connection often fell back to EDGE, even though my phone is the T-Mobile version.

SIM card
Cost for 10 days of service with T-Mobile

There are, of course, some caveats. First off, the SIM card must be purchased for $10, though this is half of what Docomo charges (¥2,100). The SIM card expires after 90 days of inactivity and can't be subsequently refilled. Refills are purchased in $10 increments, which is why I only bought 10 days of service (for $30).

Unlimited* 4G*

In computing, an asterisk * is a wildcard that may stand for any character. To cell phone companies, it is a mathematical operator that changes the sign of the term it follows. For example, plus one (+1) becomes minus one (-1). Night becomes day. 4G becomes 3G, and unlimited becomes limited. This brings me to my only gripe with T-Mobile; their advertising is a disingenuous.

How do they get away with calling a 3G network 4G? There is a strict definition of 4G. Docomo's Xi LTE network is probably the world's fastest, but Docomo doesn't even call it 4G. Because it's not, not until it reaches a theoretical downlink of 100 Mbps. So Docomo calls is 3.9G.

This "4G" term is also used in the fine print on the unlimited* data plans, which is wrong in more ways than one.
First 5GB at up to 4G speed
A plan really isn't unlimited if data is throttled after exceeding a cap, and this statement makes it seem like you'll be reduced from 4G to 3G speed. In reality, 4G speeds don't exist, and after the cap, speeds are reduced to 2.5G EDGE speeds.

But these are really minor gripes, and I guess in the US, this type of advertising in to be expected. With every company doing, those who don't would be at a major disadvantage.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Android indoor maps hit Japan

The new indoor maps are just awesome. Instead of walking to the end of the international terminal at Haneda to see if there was a better place to get a beer, I just checked the phone, turned around, and went to Curacion Cafe, where I am now. The wifi-based location is also quite good - only off by about 20 m, which is not bad for indoors.

Nikkei reports LTE iPhone and iPad coming to NTT Docomo, Docomo denies.

Interesting day. Today, the Nikkei reported that an LTE version of the iPad and iPhone are coming to NTT Docomo next summer and fall, respectively. The article claimed that, according to many involved parties, NTT Docomo CEO Yamada and VP Tujimura were in the US during mid November for direct negotiations with Apple's new CEO, Tim Cook. However Docomo quickly denied this.

Docomo to introduce LTE iPhone next summer

NTT Docomo has forged an agreement with Apple to sell the the next generation of the popular iPhone and iPad. Based on the agreement, NTT Docomo expects to first release an LTE iPad next summer, follwed by an LTE iPhone in Fall.
Docomo released a press release in response. An excerpt follows:

Today, it was reported in the press that NTT Docomo will begin carrying the iPhone and iPad. However there is currently no agreement in place with Apple. NTT Docomo are in fact not currently engaged in negotiations.
So, which is true?

If Docomo was actually in negotiations with Apple for iStuff, and if that iStuff was going to be LTE, and if Docomo just leaked that to the world, then it's not hard to imagine that Docomo would no longer be in negotiations with Apple and would never see any iAnything. Forever. And ever. Especially if Steve was still around.

So, Docomo would have no choice but to implement damage control quickly and deny the report.

On the other hand, the Nikkei report could be all BS.

via @10sai and @sveninjapan