Tuesday, July 15, 2014

An alternate view on the effects of compulsory SIM unlocking

Well, It’s official. Sōmusho, The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC), will oblige domestic carriers to remove the restrictions preventing the devices they sell from operating with another carrier’s SIM card. The requirement will go into effect sometime during the next fiscal year, which starts from April 2015.

I’ve already made clear what I think will happen, and I can sum it up with one word: NOTHING. I don't fully understand what the MIC realistically can and (more importantly) will do to carriers that fail to comply, and everything that I have seen so far indicates that the MIC is narrowly focusing on the just the SIM card.

The MIC is trying to change the status quo of an entire industry, and I'm not convinced that industry will just happily comply. There are a ton of alternate ways to cripple devices to prevent reasonable exchange between carriers, while still abiding by obligatory SIM unlocking guidelines. This should not be news to the MIC – Docomo does it right now (device-side locked tethering APNs, network-side IMEI filters on data connections, carrier mail that only works with docomo phones).

And let's also not forget that, when forced through arbitration with the MIC to create transparent MVNO guidelines, NTT docomo began employing allegedly fuzzy math, putting MVNOs that use the open route at a financial disadvantage to MVNOs who strike closed-door, old fashioned deals with docomo. (Is it really a coincidence that MVNOs with closed-door contracts appear to have have lower latency and faster speeds?)

An Alternate View

This morning I read this post by Juggly (that's the name of his site but also what I call him), in which he describes what he thinks will be the result. In summary, his opinion is the exact opposite of mine. Juggly has consistently been a good source of information, which has (apparently) caused him some trouble.

I value Juggly's opinion, so below I'll layout the gist of Juggly's post. I am interested to hear your thoughts on where this is going. Basically, this sounds good if you're the type of person likely to buy a phone at a reasonable retail price with no subsidy. If you rely on carrier subsidies, this is probably bad news for you.
  • Rather than focus on locking their stuff down in an attempt to keep customers tied to their networks, carriers will open things up in an attempt to lure customers away from rival carriers.
  • This would be done revamping current services like carrier mail to work on any phone, not just on carrier-branded devices, which is basically the case now.
  • A lot of handset sales will eventually come to be through separate retailers. These will be unlocked and ready to go on any domestic carrier (i.e., the original Nexus sales model).
  • International makers will eventually come to sell phones officially in Japan, reducing costs of handsets traditionally only available in the gray market.


  1. I wish "Juggly" would be right. But I'm afraid that you're probably much closer ot the mark.

  2. According to SankeiBiz, the details of SIM unlocking will be decided within this year.
    [...] 対象となる端末や解除方法など具体的な内容は年内にまとめる。[...]

    It's certainly a move into the right direction, but we need to wait and see what those sneaky carriers will do after being forced to remove the SIM lock. I don't expect them to give in easily.
    I truly hope that the MIC has sufficient knowledge of the possibilities that carriers have to lock in customers even if the phone is not SIM-locked and that they get the wording of the law/guideline right so that carriers will be forced to remove any restrictions (incl. APN locks/restrictions, IMEI filtering etc.). Cross your fingers...

  3. I'm afraid they'll also say that only phones sold after the start date are unlockable. So all your current phones? Nope.

    Also I unfortunately agree with Jan and DoMoDoMo--the carriers will do their best to lock their customers in. They've been operating on that model for so long and business doesn't change that quickly in Japan, especially at the behest of a government entity that typically has no teeth.

  4. fuzzycuffs: "I'm afraid they'll also say that only phones sold after the start date are unlockable. So all your current phones? Nope."

    That's almost certain. I think that was also the case when the MIC published the (toothless) guideline about unlocking phones in 2010. http://www.soumu.go.jp/main_content/000072467.pdf
    I wouldn't be surprised if carriers revised their pricing model once the MIC has passed the law. That would be a good excuse to exclude phones that have been sold under the old pricing model.

    Many Japanese government entities have no teeth and are basically pro-business, not pro-consumer.

  5. So I went into a 7-Eleven the other day and I noticed that the front two bottles of Pepsi NEX did not have their Google Play promotion code swag attached to them. Which probably means that people are stealing the paper labels for the codes without paying for the drink. You're probably thinking, "shouldn't they have printed the redemption codes on the inside of the cap? Apple and Pepsi tried this ten years ago for a iTunes promotion. It turned out that when you turned the bottle at the right angle and your eyesight was good enough, you could read the code without opening (and purchasing) the Pepsi: http://news.cnet.com/Low-tech-hack-takes-fizz-out-of-Pepsi-iTunes-promo/2100-1027_3-5162098.html

  6. At the beginning the impact will not really be from the unlocking itself, but more from it's other consequence: the fact that MNOs will have to accept customers coming with their own phone, provided it's technically compatible.
    Hopefully it will trigger the market for unlocked standalone phones, instead of carrier subsidized handsets...

    Anyway, I HOPE that things will change, as the current market in Japan really lacks diversity.

  7. When Docomo started to offer the possibility a couple of years ago, I went there with a Sim free HTC One bought in the UK. They only charged me an additional fee because the phone wasn't certified in Japan (the T mark) and off course they repeated 200 times that since it was my device they couldn't guarantee it will work properly on their network.
    But I had checked the technical part (thank you Japan Mobile Tech) and everything worked perfectly fine.

    The only thing that they could do is refuse to unlock phones bought before the start date, but at least for any international model (not the galapagos stuff), it's usually unlockable at home.

  8. What you asked was not unlocking *their* phone, but simply getting a SIM only plan for your own phone.

    This is possible a lot of ways. Just go to Docomo and start a new plan, be sure to get an Android phone, switch the plan from sp-mode to mopera and now the SIM won't be IMEI unlocked. Use your username/pass on your docomo Android phone (unlock it too for 3000jpy), or in your own phone.

  9. Antoine B. "[...] Hopefully it will trigger the market for unlocked standalone phones, instead of carrier subsidized handsets... [...]"

    I also hope that customers will have more choice in what handset they can use with any of the providers in the Japanese market. There is nothing wrong with carrier subsidized handsets as long as the carriers remove the SIM lock after the contract period and don't create others barriers (customer lock-ins) that hinder or prevent customers from moving freely to another carrier. This means no IMEI filtering, APN locking, arbitrary charges or pricing models that make the usage of unlocked phones more expensive. Wishful thinking...

  10. I tried to install cashbee, and apparently it doesn't like that my phone is rooted?
    It tries to get su rights, but this is AFTER already popping up a 'rooted app' message

  11. Do you know if this credit expires once the codes have been entered?

  12. Yes, they do expire. For the legalese on this (in English for the country of Japan; important: the rules regarding this depend on the country and currency), see this:


  13. If you go to https://wallet.google.com/ it will tell you how much of your balance is pre-paid vs. promotional. Here's a snippet of a screenshot:

  14. Well, that didn't last long. The promotion labels are gone from all of the Pepsi bottles in 7-11 outlets I've visited in Osaka.

  15. Stocks come and go. One 7-11 near me was out for a few days, then they came back. Another never had any at all. Yet another has continuously had stock.

    The way to tell if the bottles are promotional or not is they have a higher price by 10yen than all other softdrinks. So if the price is 161 yen with tax, and there are no google play labels attached, that means someone has taken the labels. If the price is 150 yen with tax and there are also no labels, that means the bottles are not part of the promotion.

  16. Incoming calls over voice network are free across carriers in Japan

  17. Joost van SteenderenAugust 4, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    I have a question about the device-side locked APNs for tethering.

    First of all I wasn't aware of this but when I went back to my country for a bit a noticed that I was unable to use tethering with my unlocked SC06D on the Vodafone APN, reading this article makes it better to understand why I think.

    Soon my 2yr docomo contract will be due and I'm looking in to changing to Bmobile. The have a pretty good deal at the moment that serves my need (http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/fd/1gbfree.html), BUT I do need the tethering function because of some inconveniences at work.

    Will a rooted docomo phone with custom ROM (CyanogenMod/CarbonRom) be able to tether the bmobile's APN?

    I tried my Vodafone SIM in this setup but unfortunately i can't get a carrier signal. My guess it's because Vodafone roaming partner is Softbank here in JP which has different frequencies?

  18. Yes, a rooted docomo phone with custom ROM will do the trick. You should be able to tether with any APN that you set on your phone.

  19. Joost van SteenderenAugust 7, 2014 at 9:09 AM


  20. Leigh Ivan Quintellio BitossiAugust 29, 2014 at 1:39 PM

    Has anyone using this B-mobile sim had mixed results sending SMS to other carriers? I'm using my unlocked iPhone 5s that I got from Apple-Japan and I was able to send SMS to a coworker, who is on AU and uses a gala-kei still, until quite recently, but now it doesn't work. Anyone else have cross-network messaging issues? Perhaps b-mobile's APN profile isn't keeping up with updates to OS7?

  21. This article adds an interesting new variable to the equation. If anyone living in Tokyo visits the Apple Store please ask about the new Apple Sim.


  22. Hi! I am having the same problem now.. wish I had seen your post before I made a contract of 1 year with them. (apparently, they had promo last month that if you subscribe for a year, you will get 1 GB free) but the speed is really slow, same as getting just the "free" 200kbps. So what carrier did you switch to? I only need a sim-only and I don't want to make another contract. Are there any carrier that offers a plan of the same price-range as this one? Thank you!

  23. Eventually I needed to replace my phone, so I switched back to a 2 years contract with one of the regular carriers to get the model I wanted (Nexus 5 with Ymobile if that's of interest). Since then performance has been stellar, so good actually that I pretty often hit the 7GB limit of my contract now...

    Another reason why I switched back to a contract is that I damaged the phone I was using with B-mobile, only to realize the convenience of having an insurance and the pain of ruining JPY40,000 just because you left your phone fall. I hate the strings that come with contracts, but at the end of the day I concluded that they remain the most pragmatic solution for people living in Japan.

  24. Just recommend one unlock able tablet please.

  25. Avoid Vodafone they are rotten to the core & don't pay mother-state tax. Proceed with caution. Legalities may occur soon!