Monday, September 30, 2013

NTT docomo does not prevent unbranded devices from connecting to LTE network

There are now several posts online that describe using the Nexus 7 LTE with various Japanese SIM cards. Unlike the iPhone (and just as I expected) there appear to be no problems getting a connection with an unlocked, unbranded device on docomo's "Xi" LTE network. LTE service, both direct from docomo and through an MNVO, works perfectly.

N7 APN settings (Image source).

Until now, we couldn't rule out a "server-side" origin for the problems that unlocked iPhone 5 users encounter when trying to connect to docomo LTE. This was because, except for those provided by docomo, there were no other LTE devices that supported docomo's primary LTE frequency (Band 1, 2100 MHz). We had two variables (iOS software and docomo servers), and one equation (Apple hardware), which is unsolvable.

We can now safely say that 3rd party devices are not subject to an across-the-board lock out from "Xi" LTE.

Prospects for unlocked iPhone 5S and 5C in Japan

It still remains unclear (due to lack of testing) what will happen when an unlocked iPhone 5S or 5C is brought to Japan. iOS is well known for disabling the ability to easily alter APN settings depending on the SIM card that is inserted. As mentioned in comments on another post, the iPhone Configuration Utility can be used to create configuration files that add new APNs, and this is used by some MVNOs to work around disabled APN settings. However, as I noted earlier, the docomo carrier bundle appears to prevent attaching to 3G and LTE networks with anything other than the sp-mode APN. If this is the case, it could render the configuration utility useless if these same rules are included on unlocked iPhones as well.

The sp-mode APN is filtered by IMEI number on the "server side." Only whitelisted devices (sold by docomo) can connect.

Nexus 7 LTE SIM options

The Shukan Ascii article compares different LTE SIMs in the Nexus 7. I'll briefly translate and summarize the contents in another post when I have more time.

In short, Docomo Xi SIMs work and are recommended by Shukan Ascii. You will need either:
  1. a subscription to docomo's Mopera ISP ( APN) or
  2. a contract with a docomo MNVO.
You cannot take a docomo SIM from a normal docomo LTE phone and put it in the Nexus 7. Most all docomo phones now use the sp-mode ISP. The Mopera ISP must be used.

A contract change was also required to get a KDDI SIM to work, but as I suspected, coverage is not the best (though better than expected in the Tokyo metro area). Emobile SIMs are not yet compatible pending a firmware update.

Shukan Ascii weren't able to get the Softbank LTE SIM to work with anything except regular 3G, but they admit they didn't try very hard. I know of at least one person claiming to have softbank LTE and an iPhone SIM card working with Android.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

MVNOs appear locked out of Docomo iPhone 5S and 5C

UPDATE: b-mobile "smarphone" SIMs are compatible with LTE.

Like most SIM-locked iPhones, the Docomo variants do not allow for setting mobile access point names (APN). Without this ability, even if the phone was unlocked to allow usage on other carriers, you would be unable to connect to the data network (except with a particular carrier in the Philippines that completely ignores APN settings).

[List of NTT Docomo APNs.]

This means that you can only use the "sp-mode" ISP from Docomo. You cannot use the "Mopera U" ISP, also from Docomo.

Conversely, to use any Android phone with one of the large numbers of MVNOs does NOT even require paying the ¥3,000+tax fee to have the phone unlocked, since the MVNOs are using Docomo's network. All you have to do is follow the simple instructions to set the appropriate APN. To date, I have never heard of an Android phone that prevents changing mobile network settings.

Docomo carrier bundle

I spent the morning looking around the NTT Docomo iPhone carrier bundle (Docomo_jp.bundle; v. 15.1.0). Coming from an Android point of view, it's really interesting to see all the effort put into preventing even the slightest changes. Everything is signed. Not just individual files, but some entries within files are signed, including the APNs.

Within the carrier.plist file are three APN entries, two of which are blank and disabled. The other one is the standard APN, which (also unlike Android) is being used for both data and tethering. (Turns out we were all wrong on our speculation why docomo performs a forced APN switch when activating tethering on Android).

Also within the bundle are several override preference files (overrides_N51_N53.plist), which contains an entry that appears to only allow the phone to attach to the spmode APN, and both this file and this entry are signed. So I think that, even if you succeeded in somehow setting a different APN, you'd still not be able to connect.

Friday, September 20, 2013

KDDI announces "U22" discount, one ups Docomo, Softbank

Looks like the guys at KDDI had to work late. This announcement showed up late last night. Following Softbank, KDDI has now matched Docomo's student discount. Three years waived voice fees and ¥1,050 discount on data.

This is better than the other two offers because it is not limited to students. Like Softbank, any LTE smartphone is eligible.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

iPhone price war begins: Softbank matches Docomo's student discount

Softbank Mobile and KDDI, the existing two Japanese iPhone carriers offered (as usual) the exact same pricing and discounts. NTT Docomo, the new iPhone carrier, beat them in price in just about every category, the most significant being their Student discount.

This waived the base voice fee for 3 years and gave a discount on data of ¥1,050.

Of course, Softbank has now matched this, which comes as absolutely no surprise. No word from KDDI yet, but I assume they'll also match this discount.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Nexus 7 LTE "currently" incompatible with emobile LTE

UPDATE: A firmware update will make the Nexus 7 compatible with emobile LTE.

From the Nexus 7 LTE purchase page, we have the following:
E-mobile band 3 (1800MHz) not currently supported.

I have no idea how to interpret the word "currently" in this sentence. It could mean that this current hardware revision is incompatible, and if you buy it, you'll never have the option of emobile LTE. Or, it could be that there is currently a firmware incompatibility that a future OS update will fix.

Nexus 7 LTE on sale in Japan

If you access the direct link for the LTE version on the play store, you can add the US version to your cart, and it indicates a 1-2 business days for shipping. However, on the official Japanese Nexus 7 site, it is currently listed as unavailable, though if you choose one of the other versions, you can change that for the LTE version (though the display language switches to English).

North America or European Version

Right now, only the US version is available from the play store in Japan. Both will work in Japan. Neither will grab the NTT Docomo's or KDDI's "800 MHz" bands. This is because there are a ton of bands that are called "800" (even "850" is sometimes called "800").

(Japanese frequency bands)

Docomo's "800" band is Band 19, and KDDI's is Band 18. The EU version supports Band 20, and there is not sufficient overlap on the downlink for this to support Docomo's low frequency (though the uplink does overlap). There is no overlap at all with KDDI at "800 MHz".

So, even though the EU version has "800 MHz" it won't have any benefit in Japan over the US version. This really won't matter at all for Docomo now because they don't seem to have deployed much LTE service on their "800 MHz" band.

North America: LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 13, 17
Europe: LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 20

(To display the above information from the official Japanese Nexus 7 site, click 技術仕様, then スペック情報を表示)

Recommended to avoid KDDI

I stand by my earlier claim that the Nexus 7 will suck on KDDI for the immediate future. There are currently problems with Verizon in the US, another CDMA-2000 carrier, who just like KDDI, has rolled out an LTE network. However, the reason for the Verizon suckage is totally different from the reason why KDDI will suck.

[LTE is an evolution of W-CDMA which is in turn an evolution of GSM. CDMA-2000 is based on CDMA. W-CDMA and CDMA-2000 are both "3G" and they are totally different and incompatible technologies.]

Verizon has the proper network to support the Nexus 7, but they refuse to do so, citing the inability to activate a line of service for the device because it lacks a CDMA-2000 radio. If this is true, it's just temporary and mainly an excuse. At activation, the clerk fills out a form on a computer. There is a field for the CDMA radio ID, and if that field is blank, then the the form can't be submitted. Easy to fix — update the activation system.

There are two reasons to avoid KDDI with the Nexus 7 LTE:
  1. No CDMA-2000 radio in the Nexus 7 LTE, so the device can't fallback to "3G" when LTE is unavailable, which will be...
  2. All the damn time because KDDI's supported LTE network uses Band 1 (2100 MHz), and they recently got busted misrepresenting the coverage, stating Band 1 covered almost everyone when it in fact covered almost nobody at all.
Problem 1 above will remain until Problem 2 is fixed. I'm sure KDDI is building out the Band 1 network as fast as possible. The issue with Verizon just shows how difficult it can be to deal with a CDMA carrier, some of which don't even have RUIM cards.

Nexus 7 as an indicator of unlocked iPhone 5S/C performance with a Docomo Xi SIM

The iPhone 5 technically supported Docomo's Xi network (Band 1, 2100 MHz), but it never really worked. Using an unlocked device with a Docomo contract requires using Mopera as the ISP, as opposed to sp-mode. There has been speculation whether the problems with the Mopera APN were purposely caused by Docomo, Apple, or both.

I think there should be no problems with the iPhone 5S or 5C with a Docomo contract and Mopera as the ISP. I'd speculate that an Apple carrier.plist preference file was denying a connection to Xi with a Docomo (44010) SIM. I could be wrong.

If you can bring an unlocked Nexus 7 LTE to Docomo and use the Mopera ISP with no problems, then it shows that the Docomo is NOT actively preventing non-branded devices from accessing the Xi network.

Docomo iPhone 2-year total cost is the least expensive - for some

Here is a comparison of the total cost (over a two year contract) of the iPhone 5S on the three Japanese carriers. If you believe it, the 2-year cost of a docomo iPhone is in all cases either less expensive, or the same cost, as rivals KDDI and Softbank Mobile (SBM).

This is not quite the case.

As I mentioned previously, docomo is more heavily subsidizing the hardware cost and offering the same subsidy to both existing and new customers. However, docomo's MNP (Mobile Number Portability) discount is only for one year unless:
  • you are either a student (3 years) or
  • you are a returning docomo customer (2 years)
If you are neither, then add ¥780 x 12 months (¥9,360) to the MNP prices in the screenshot above, and over 2 years you'll pay ¥147,960, ¥158,040, or ¥168,120 for the 16, 32 and 64 GB models, respectively. This is exactly ¥9,360 more than the 2-year cost with KDDI and SBM's MNP discount.

The highest and lowest

Considering the full possible range of prices, docomo wins. The absolute lowest 2-year cost of a docomo iPhone 5S is ¥113,400 for a 16 GB model with MNP and student discount. The highest cost is ¥177,480 for an existing customer (or one who doesn't port over a phone number from another carrier) for the 64 GB model.

For KDDI and SBM, the range is ¥138,600 to ¥198,800, which is ¥21,320 to ¥25,200 to more expensive than docomo.

From where does this difference originate? In the case of the most expensive, Docomo is offering the standard Xi voice plan price of ¥780, ¥200 less than the other's voice plan, which adds up to ¥4,800 over 2 years. The remaining ¥15,000 reflects Docomo offering the same hardware subsidy to existing customers. The difference in the least expensive price originates from the data discount offered to students.

Bottom Line

Docomo costs less if:
  • you are a student (absolutely the best deal)
  • you a returning docomo customer
  • you have no existing mobile contract in Japan
  • you are an existing AU or SBM customer
Docomo costs more if:
  • you are not a former customer and porting over a number

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Comparison of iPhone prices between Docomo KDDI and Softbank

Below is a table via engadget Japan comparing the subsidized final cost of the iPhone 5S and 5C for each carrier. NTT Docomo is not surprisingly the most aggressive with pricing, and they're the only one to offer the phone at the same price to both new and existing customers. The Docomo price for the 16GB 5C is not a typo.

Remember, these are subsidized prices. This is not the full retail price that you would owe if you cancelled your contract early. Docomo's unsubsidized prices are significantly higher than the other two carriers. The 16GB 5C costs well over ¥90,000 unsubsidized, which is nearly double the price of the though KDDI and Softbank.

For most people, this won't be an issue, but if there is any chance that you cannot complete your contract obligation, do not buy an iPhone from Docomo. Coming back to the 16 GB 5C, if you use it over the full two years, Docomo will pay you ¥ 6,300, but if you have to cancel after only a few months, you'll owe docomo close to ¥90,000.

iPhone 5S 64GB
iPhone 5S 32GB
iPhone 5S 16GB
iPhone 5C 32GB
iPhone 5C 16GB

Friday, September 13, 2013

Nikkei: Docomo will NOT unlock iPhone

Yup, as we were beginning to expect, Docomo's push for the unlocking of cell phones to allow the switching of SIM cards between carriers was what we thought it was originally: A lame attempt to get the iPhone. After having gone on record and saying they'd unlock all their phones, now that they have the iPhone, it appears that they are not going to unlock it.

From the Nikkei:
It has become clear that the iPhone 5s and 5c will be sold by NTT Docomo with a SIM lock, preventing usage on other carriers. Docomo has decided not to adopt the same SIM unlock service available for it's other smartphones.
It's possible that if there is enough of an uproar, that Docomo could change their mind, but even if that happened, I wouldn't expect it this (fiscal) year.

NTT Docomo iPhone pricing, discount plans announced

The Docomo iPhone site is now live. Pre orders started from 4 pm today.

Docomo is offering up to 3 years of waived base fees, which typically costs ¥780 per month, along with an approximate ¥1,000 discount on the data plan for people port a number (MNP) from another carrier. This brings the minimum cost for those who qualify down to ¥4,725. Existing customers will pay about ¥6,500 per month. Docomo will also buy your Softbank or AU iPhones for up to ¥20,000 (in docomo points).

The price of the cheapest iPhone (16GB 5C) is less than the total subsidy such that an additional ¥525 is deducted from the monthly cost. This means the absolute cheapest monthly cost for an iPhone from Docomo is ¥4,200.

Here are a list (pdf) of important service roll out dates: Available from August 20. sp mode mail and related services from October 1. D marker services will mainly become available within October (like d hits, d shopping d video, etc.). Docomo's subscription music service will actually (surprise surprise) be available, but is not scheduled to start until December.

NOTTV, decoration mail, osaifu-keitai, DCMX mini and Docomo's integrated contacts will not be available.

Basic Fees

  • Base voice fee: ¥780
  • ISP (sp mode): ¥315
  • Data: ¥ 5,460
Total: ¥6,555


Here is the list of discounts for people switching from other carriers.
  • Docomo Best Switch Student Discount: Base voice fee waived for 3 years, ¥1,050 data discount (requires MNP)
  • Docomo Welcome Back Discount: Base voice fee waived for 2 years (requires MNP; must have previously been a Docomo customer)
  • Docomo Best Switch Discount: Base voice fee waived for 1 year (requires MNP).
  • Docomo iPhone trade in Program: 1,000 docomo points per month for up to 20 months (requires MNP)
    • iPhone 5: 20 months (64 GB), 18 months (32 GB), 16 months (16 GB)
    • iPhone 4S: 10 months (64 GB), 8 months (32 GB), 6 months (16 GB)
    • iPhone 4: 5 months (32 GB), 4 months (16 GB), 3 months (8 GB)
    • iPhone 3GS: 2 months
    • iPhone 3G: 1 month
As usual, the deal is not nearly as nice, for existing loyal customers:
iPhone upgrade plan: ¥420 discount per month offsetting the cost of a 16 GB 5s or 32 GB 5c to zero yen
  • Plus iPhone discount: Base voice fee waived for 1 year, data cost of ¥4,935 for one year if you carry an i-mode feature phone AND an iPhone.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

NTT Docomo apparently undecided on iPhone SIM locking

According to a shukan Ascii post, when asked via a phone interview if the Docomo iPhone can be unlocked just as any Docomo Android phone, a representative stated that "it is undecided at this point".

Perhaps it is, perhaps it's not. Allow me to refresh your memory regarding what Docomo said about SIM locking back during the debate. In an interview with the Yomiuri (that is of course no longer available online), here is what a a Docomo exec had to say (emphasis mine):
Yomiuri: It has been said that the reason for you to unlock SIMs is to bring Softbank's popular iPhone to Docomo.

Kouji Furukawa: 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.
Well, if Docomo does not allow their iPhone to be unlocked, then it proves what we all new all along. That, contrary to what they maintained publicly, their entire push for SIM unlocking was exclusively about getting the iPhone.

Ishikawa Tsutsumu has indicated on twitter that it may indeed be locked.

Oh, and Docomo also isn't saying whether or not they'll carry the iPad.

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Docomo iPhone could FINALLY disrupt SIM locking in Japan

As far as I see it, the most interesting potential outcome of a Docomo iPhone is enhanced unlocking of phones between Japan's two large W-CDMA carriers, Softbank and Docomo. This will eventually encompass KDDI as Voice over LTE replaces 3G. (KDDI is currently immune to unlocking because they use an incompatible CDMA-2000 network for voice communications.)

Recap: The origins of SIM unlocking in Japan

SIM unlocking (as it's referred to in Japan) started several years ago, following Softbank Mobile's successful introduction of the iPhone 3G. NTT Docomo found itself on the defensive, for the first time ever, and you do have to sympathize just a little with the the arrogant bastards. Survey upon survey told them exactly what people wanted in a phone: mobile payments, water resistance, infrared, solar panels, one seg, pedometers, labyrinthine mazes of menu options, and an eyebrow plucker. The iPhone had none and this, Apple had no experience making phones, and Macs held a dismal share of the PC market in Japan.

And yet the iPhone quickly achieved unprecedented popularity in Japan, prompting Docomo to attempt to sidestep Apple by successfully pushing for the introduction of SIM unlocking guidelines.

(See our coverage of the debate, including an overview plus the opinions of Docomo and E-access, KDDI, and Softbank.)

"Guidelines" as set forth by the the Ministry of Infrastructure and Communications are just that - they are voluntary and not "requirements." However, in practice, telecommunications entities followed them. Up until now. Softbank simply refused to comply with the unlocking guidelines, even following contract completion (and even as they were buying back phones, unlocking them, and reselling them in emerging markets).

And so we fell into a stalemate.

KDDI and E-access (Emobile) are, for various reasons, not relevant to the SIM lock debate; it currently revolves around Docomo and Softbank. Softbank holds the coveted iPhone and no offering from Docomo has proved popular enough to make unlocking an issue to enough consumers. Here's why I think this will change if Docomo sells the iPhone.

Implications of an unlocked Docomo iPhone

Softbank phones are not compatible with the budget data and voice plans offered by MVNOs because Docomo provides the infrastructure. This means that only unlocked phones (or Docomo phones) are compatible. Several years ago, this would not have been an issue, but the MVNO space, led by Japan Communications Inc, has seen substantial growth.

(Comparison of all Japanese MVNOs.)

Many household names such as OCN, Panasonic, and Rakuten have entered the fray, lending legitimacy, in the eyes of the average (non-techy) consumer, to the notion of mobile phone service provided by an entity that is not an actual mobile phone carrier. This results in a higher intrinsic value for a device that works with Docomo versus one that does not (all other things being equal).

If NTT Docomo does indeed carry the iPhone, and if they continue with their tradition of unlocking all their devices, then this would create a large feature disparity between Japanese iPhone carriers. Any discrepancy in value is amplified by the fact that, once you wade through all the fuzzy math to arrive at the out-of-pocket cost of hardware and service, the total cost is almost always the same for similar devices across competing networks.

Recall that previous iPhone feature disparity, with respect to tethering and data caps, left Softbank on the brink of a customer revolt. This was narrowly averted by a yarimasho (aka executive order) from CEO Son. Softbank had no choice but to offer free tethering and ease data caps to match the value offered by KDDI. (Microsoft should have seen a similar reaction coming with the Xbox One versus the PS4.)

Unlocking phones is a slippery slope for carriers. I believe that NTT Docomo will, after making such a stink about unlocking and vowing to unlock all their phones, have no choice but to unlock any iPhone they may sell, just as they currently do for all Android device. If this creates a strong enough feature disparity, Softbank will be forced to follow, and they would lose any justification for keeping their Android devices locked.

win win.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Android 4.2 released for Xperia A S0-04E

A rooted Xperia with rootkeeper installed will not lose root during the update. This adds home screen widgets and some other random improvements. From "About Phone" choose "Update Android Software" and follow the directions.

Suggestions for improved Swype Japanese input


I was at first thrilled to find that Swype supported Japanese input, but as several commenters pointed out, it is indeed the exact opposite of using a wnn (Japanese IME) keyboard as your primary input. Japanese keyboards are great for Japanese, but support for English is lackluster. If you need to enter more than about one word, it's usually faster to switch keyboards entirely. I have a friend who I thought were always drunk, until I realized he exclusively types English on the Google Japanese Keyboard.

I'd say that Swyping to type Japanese on the current version (1.5.14) of the Swype keyboard is a decent option for about 40% of what I type. I can manage to enter about 80-90% of words by typing them on the Swype keyboard. For the rest, you have to fallback to typing individual characters using either the on or kun readings, or typing common words that contain the desired kanji, then deleting the unneeded characters.

So after using the trial and purchasing the pro app (It's worth 99 cents), here are some suggestions for improvement, ordered by obviousness (to me):

(Let us know your suggestions and we'll add them to this list.)

1. Greatly expand the dictionary. Ask Apple, you can't build a map database through crowdsourcing, much less an entire language. You have to do the hard work or license the product of someone who did.

2. Better swype prediction. If hunting and pecking around the keyboard brings up the correct word, then the same should work when swyping across the keyboard, except that it doesn't. Any sort of semi-complex verb conjugation will fail. Try swyping 犬に噛まれた (inu ni kamareta; bitten by a dog). It's not possible.

The order of swipes clearly resolves to kamareta, which is not an option.

Swype fails to understand the conjugation and suggests a word that isn't even close (misses the ma for a ka. If you peck this out on the keyboard, you can enter it with no problem. This behavior is consistent; Swype fails so poorly to understand the conjugation, it suggests words that aren't even words (飲もいや? WTF does that mean?), like in the below example.
Total fail. Maybe I should type 飲みましょうか?

3. Add a dedicated enter button. This is absolutely necessary when typing Japanese using an IME. You must have a way of accepting the input as entered, ignoring all the suggestions. See this example. type 俺 (ore; I), then も (mo; too/also). There is no way to do enter the mo as "also" instead of something dumb like "algae" because, unbelievably, the simple hiragana is not an option in ANY of the suggestions. Seriously. (You have to switch input methods to accept this as も and keep typing.)

4. Add swype support for kunrei-shiki romanization (once you fix number 2 above). I don't type Japanese by phonetically spelling words out using the Hepburn system (e.g., Tsuyoshi). It's faster to just type tuyosi. Typing on the Swype keyboard supports this. Swiping does not. "Tsu" requires you to swipe your finger all over the keyboard. "Tu" does not.

So that's call I an think of. Do you have any suggestions for improvement?