Thursday, January 9, 2014

Updated comparison of b-mobile products

This is a completely updated post comparing the various "b-mobile" mobile data and voice products from Japan Communications Inc (JCI). When I created the original post three years ago, JCI was the only MVNO offering low-cost mobile SIMs — they literally created the market in Japan, and it wasn't exactly easy. Government arbitration was required to force NTT Docomo to allow open and transparent access to MVNOs. As a result, there are now dozens of startups and existing companies offering competing products, almost all of which mimic JCI’s pricing. (Here is an overview of the types of products available from other companies but is horribly out of date).

This post focuses on JCI SIMs partially because they have the most extensive lineup of products, partially because they are the only MVNO offering voice plans, but mainly because I like the company and their CEO, Frank Sanda. He is currently the greatest disrupter of telcom in Japan and the reason there are even other MVNOs offering low-cost data plans for smartphones. Everyone, including NTT Docomo, has copied JCI products.

When it comes to the large carriers, they all just follow what NTT Docomo does. If NTT Docomo offers 7 GB of LTE data for ¥6,000 with tethering, so do Softbank and KDDI. Nothing really innovative and disrupting coming from any of the carriers. They are too busy trying to fight with each other and protect what they have.

Mobile in Japan needs disrupting, so I often recommend JCI products.

Contents


Is an MVNO SIM Right For You

These are economical plans that cost a fraction of what the carriers charge, but the quota and speeds are much lower. There is also no minimum contract on the data-only SIMs and only a minimal requirement on the voice SIMs. When a contract expires, it does not automatically renew. If those terms interest you, give these (or any other MVNO’s) products a try.

If you want the absolute best mobile experience with the fastest possible data connection, the largest possible data quota, and unlimited in-network calling, do not buy these products. They are not for you and you will not be happy. Spend the ¥8,000 or so minimum per month on a carrier plan from Docomo, Softbank, KDDI, or Emobile.

Speed Classes

This is also applicable to products from other MVNOs. In the tables below, I don’t actually mention the advertised speeds. This is because even with a mobile carrier, those numbers are meaningless. This is even more so with an MVNO. All of these SIMs can be classified into three classes: Slow, Usable, and Fast.

Slow (✕)

All the ¥980 SIMs are in this category. Anything below 400 kbps is in this category. There are probably minor improvements moving from 150 kbps to 300. These are only good for maintaining a background data connection to receive push notifications and mail without attachments. These are best used with the "Turbo Charge" option. Turbo can be toggled with an app. When on, data speed is unrestricted. 500 MB of turbo data costs ¥1,200 and is valid for 90 days. When turbo is off, VoIP, youtube, skype, streaming, etc. is not possible with these SIMs.

Usable (△)

All of the SIMs with a data quota are what I consider usable. They will not be fast like an LTE data plan from a carrier, but they will allow streaming. It is possible to use these as your only source of mobile data.

Fast (〇)

There is only one SIM card that is "fast," the FAIR. It is totally unrestricted beyond what NTT Docomo does. It also has the highest price for data.

Recommended SIM

The best overall product is the "Free Data Voice SIM. It is only slightly more expensive that the ¥980 slow SIMs but has voice capability, which makes it immune to the "cell standby battery drain issue" described below. The "highspeed" version also provides the best value of all the SIMs in terms of the amount of data per cost.



Prepaid data-only SIMs (Available to non residents)

SIM
Network
Speed
Cost
Data limit
Streaming
Turbo
Activation
Initial fee
SIM size
Recharge
6 Month Flat Rate
LTE
¥14,900 (¥2,483/month)
1000 MB / 30 days
Easy! Activation
¥0
regular, micro
1 GB Flat Rate
LTE
¥3,100
1000 MB / 30 days
Easy! Activation
¥380
regular, micro, nano
Fair
LTE
¥8,350/1000 MB (min. ¥2,087/month)
1000 MB / 120 days
Easy! Activation
¥1,450
regular, micro
U300 1 Month
LTE
¥2,980
300 kbps unlimited
Easy! Activation
¥0
regular, micro
U300 6 Month
LTE
¥14,900 (¥2,483/month)
300 kbps unlimited
Easy! Activation
¥0
regular, micro
14-Day Visitor (U300)
3G
¥3,980
300 kbps unlimited
Preactivated
¥0
regular, micro, nano
14-Day Visitor 1GB
3G
¥3,980
300 kbps unlimited
Preactivated
¥0
regular, micro, nano

1 GB Flat Rate

1 GB Flat Rate SIMs cannot be converted to a FAIR (thought the reverse is true), and the SIM expires 10 days after the charge is used up. Cost is about ¥3,500, though they were spotted at Costco for just under ¥3,000. This gives 1000 MB per 30 days.
More Information.

6 Month Flat Rate

This is 6 months of prepaid data and cannot be recharged. If you do not want to pay by credit card, then this is your only viable option (otherwise you’d need to buy a new SIM every month because recharge is only by credit card). It provides 1000 MB every 30 days for a total of 180 days. After using 1000 MB in a 30 day period, speed is reduced to 150 kbps.

Fair

The Fair is a completely unrestricted prepaid data SIM that is charged in 1000 MB units that are valid for either 120 days (4 months).

This is not designed for heavy data users but can be very economical for those who only need 250 MB per month (a quarter of the charge). Having reliable access to wifi during the day is helpful to ration the bandwidth over a four month period. This is an option for short term visitors who don't mind paying more excellent coverage and speed. I currently use a b-mobile Fair SIM and have a series of posts under the "Fair data cap" label. Fair Micro SIMs are also available.

U300

This is a prepaid data-only SIM that is limited to a 300 kbps. The one month version is popular among temporarily visitors because it can be purchased with cash and doesn't require residency status. However, the one month version is not (that I've seen) available in retail stores, though I've seen them in various small corner shops in Akihabara. These SIMs can be shipped to a hotel address and paid for COD. I've also seen them available on Ebay (for twice the normal price). There is also a six month version. This SIM card is known to have high latency that can cause relatively long delays when opening new connections.
More Information.

Visitor

This provides the same service as the U300, except that it comes preactivated and has better support for English speakers. The original is no longer available. This is valid for 14 days and includes a 1) "14-day" U300 option or a 2) 14-day 1GB Flat Rate. This can only be shipped to Domestic addresses and is purchased via a credit card.
More information.

Postpaid data-only SIMs (Residents of Japan only)

SIM
Network
Speed
Montly Cost
Data limit
Streaming
Turbo
Activation
Package Price
SIM size
Smart SIM 980
LTE
¥980
150 kbps unlimited
Online
¥3,150
regular, micro
Smart SIM
LTE
¥1,980
1000 MB
Online
¥3,150
regular, micro
Smart SIM
LTE
¥2,980
2000 MB
Online
¥3,150
regular, micro
Pair GB
LTE
¥2,970
2000 MB / 30 days
Online
¥3,150
regular, micro
Zero Yen
LTE
¥3,780 (¥37.8/MB to 100 MB)
1000 MB / 30 days
Online
¥3,150
regular, micro
High Speed
LTE
¥1,980
500 MB / 30 days
Online
¥3,150
regular, micro
Aeon Plan XA
LTE
¥980
150 kbps unlimited
Purchase
¥3,150
regular, micro
Aeon Plan XB
LTE
¥2,980
400 kbps unlimited
Purchase
¥3,150
regular, micro
Aeon Plan XC
LTE
¥4,980
throttled after 1.2 GB / month
Purchase
¥3,150
regular, micro
Aeon/Smart Plan I
LTE
¥900
600 MB / month
Purchase
¥3,150
regular, micro
Aeon/Smart Plan N
LTE
¥934
40 MB / day
Purchase
¥3,150
regular, micro

Smart SIM

This includes three different options that can be changed monthly. For ¥980, you get the slow 150 kbps unlimited service. ¥1,980 buys 1 GB of "usable" data. ¥2,980 gets you 2GB. This would be a good option for someone who spends a lot of time out side of Japan because you can change it to the cheap plan during months you are away.

Pair GB

A 2 GB data plan is split between two separate SIM cards for ¥2,970/month, less than the cost of their 1 GB flat rate 3G SIM. Regular size and microSIMs can be mixed. A retail package containing two SIM cards costs ¥3,150 from Amazon or Yodobashi. At the time of purchase, the SIMs are unactivated and have no charge. A credit card must be used to add a service plan for ¥2,970/month. If 2 GB is exceed in a month, additional data can be added at ¥525/100 MB. As far as I can tell, the SIMs are permanently deactivated if service is cancelled. Address verification required.
More Information.

High Speed

This is a monthly, recurring service that provides 500 MB of LTE 4G data for ¥1,980. An additional 500 MB charge may be purchased, but remaining data does not roll over to the next month. SIM is purchased first from Amazon for ¥3,150, which contains no charge. The SIM is then activated with on the b-mobile product page.
More Information.

Aeon Data Sims

There are three versions of these data-only SIMs. All are postpaid and only available at Aeon retail stores (current list [J] as a google map). The 150 and 400 kbps versions are similar to the prepaid U300 in that streaming is not allowed. The most expensive version allows streaming and faster, probably in the "usable" speed class. While it is "unlimited," throttling kicks in after 1.2 GB in a month.
More Information.

Plan I and Plan N Upgrade

Users of the Smart SIM from the bmobile market, Amazon, or Yodoboash, as well as users of the Aeon data SIMs can change their plan to the I or N plan for either a smaller monthly data limit or a daily limit


Voice and data SIMs (Residents of Japan only)

NTT Docomo does not package voice plans with Xi LTE data plans. A voice call, costs ¥20 per 30 seconds, regardless if you are using a Docomo or MVNO contract. This makes voice plans for LTE SIMs very expensive, unfortunately. MVNOs also cannot offer free in-network calling. So if you must place lots of voice calls, the FOMA 3G Talking U300 SIM is probably your best best. All the others have been converted to Xi LTE. Unfortunately, it is slow and it does not support turbo charge.

What’s most ironic about the way that NTT Docomo packages voice with LTE is that the calls are routed over FOMA anyway.

All of these have a minimum contract of 4 months. Early termination fee is ¥8,400. From the 5th month, you can cancel anytime and there is no additional fee or automatic renewal.

SIM
Network
Speed
Montly Cost
Data limit
Streaming
Turbo
Outgoing call
Included minutes
Activation
Package Price
SIM size
Smartphone Free Data
LTE
¥1,560
200 kbps unlimited
¥20/30s
0
Online
¥3,150
regular, micro, nano
Smartphone Highspeed
LTE
¥3,120
3000 MB / 30 days
¥20/30s
0
Online
¥3,150
regular, micro, nano
Aeon sSmartphone 980
LTE
¥2,060
150 kbps
¥20/30s
0
Purchase
¥3,150
regular, micro, nano
Aeon Smartphone 1980
LTE
¥3,060
1 GB
¥20/30s
0
Purchase
¥3,150
regular, micro, nano
Aeon Smartphone 2980
LTE
¥4,060
2 GB
¥20/30s
0
Purchase
¥3,150
regular, micro, nano
Talking U300
3G
¥3,960
300 kbps unlimited
¥20/30s
25
Online
¥3,150
regular

Activation methods

There are presently four different methods for activation.
  1. Easy! Activation Requires a Japanese mobile phone or PHS (English option available).
  2. Activation at time of purchase
  3. Online registration
  4. Preactivated
Easy! Activation is typically done for prepaid data-only 3G FOMA SIMs. Activation at purchase happens with the TalkingSIMs. If purchasing at a store, this happens immediately. If purchasing online, ID must be scanned and sent to JCI when applying for a talkingSIM. Online registration is required for the newer SIMs, such as some of the LTE SIMs and the zero-yen SIM. The SIM arrives in the mail unactiavated and with no charge. SIMs requiring online activation are postpaid and typically billed at monthly recurring intervals (except for the zero-yen when there was no usage during the month) There may be an additional step of verifying mailing address by entering a PIN code from a post card sent by JCI. Finally, preactivation is only for the visitor SIM. A large complaint from tourists was having to find a Japanese mobile phone to activate U300s or 1 GB Flat Rates.

Troubleshooting

The most common issue is no signal bars and the phone thinking it has no data connection when it actually does with data-only SIMs. Voice and data SIMs are unaffected. This is common to all data-only SIMs from all MVNOs in Japan. This causes some issues with some applications that don’t function as they normally would because the apps think they can’t connect to the internet. The biggest issue is with cell standby battery drain. Fortunately, In the latest versions of Android, the issues have been fixed. However, depending on your version or your maker, you may still have issues. The work around is:

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