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Choosing the Right Japan Cell Phone

Japanese Payphone

Over the last 15 years the AINEO team has had the opportunity to use various mobile phones in Japan. We have tested them in Tokyo and all around Japan. We have used Willcom, Softbank (Formerly J-phone/Vodafone), NTT Docomo, Tsuka and AU (owned by KDDI Corporation).

NTT Docomo has been by far was the leader for reception nationwide. AU has closed the gap on coverage. Whether you are in a hotel, subway or the back end of a little restaurant somewhere you can expect good reception from these two carriers usually. There are sometimes exceptions. Docomo is the most expensive to use and cuts the users off frequently with its poor reception. Years ago with our first Docomo, the shops told us that it was the telephone terminal that was having trouble if we took it took the shop for too many dropped calls. After switching the unit once or twice, it became clear that it was the network that was the problem.

As NTT Docomo is a part of the NTT group, many Japanese have considered it to be a ‘safe’ bet for service as NTT is the incumbent carrier for Japan and therefore has the largest amount of infrastructure as a telco. They were able to amass users numbering in at about 50 million people. However, the ability to receive a call doesn’t mean that you can continue the call without a drop. We found that the service

-drops constantly

-network is overcrowded

-voice quality is poor

-customer service is poor

Softbank Mobile definitely has the best roaming service. We joke that their service works better outside Japan than it does in Japan. Their reception is not that great, and their customer service team is poorly trained. We found at Golf Courses and other offsite locations around Tokyo, Kyushu, and Shikoku, AU and Docomo reception was fine but Softbank was usually sketchy.

Probably, the rising star for mobile in Japan is Willcom. Willcom was originally DDI Pocket until a large percentage of shares were sold off to some international investors (the Carlise Group from the US). They have introduced a 2,900 monthly plan that includes unlimited email and calls to other email users. They lowered the rates for calls from Willcom to other mobile phones and recently introduced reasonably priced international direct dial (international calling) that is very competitive with even calling card companies and IP phone services. They have been continuously picking up new subscribers as they have been the first carrier to successfully introduce a Windows mobile device. The Sharp Zero3 (Zero Three) and Zero3ES (otherwise known as the ES) have been in high demand with major retailers like Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera selling 30-40 sets a day.

Willcom has become a second phone for a lot of people. A lot of Japanese youth, business people, and even students are using these phones for their mail and calling and chatting with each other. Many of AINEO’s airlines customers and internal project managers and engineers are using Willcom sets. Willcom has got great quality, very reasonable pricing and excellent customer service. Their main weakness is that outside of Tokyo, or more specifically, out in the countryside they have little to know reception. So if you have any staff that will need to close deals from a rice paddy then Willcom may not be the best choice. It works fine throughout Japan and within all the cities we traveled we had no problem.

With number portability introduced on 24 October, we planned to acquire one HTC windows mobile device. The advertising said that the unit was to sign up. The fine print said it as a two year contract with an approximately 2500 penalty for uncompleted months in the first two years. However after waiting 25 minutes, the CSR (customer service representative) told us that indeed it would be an additional 690 yen/month for the phone. In the US, we call this deceptive advertising. Most people off the street would call it a lie. After listening to 10 minutes of explanation, it was clear that they plan to make their money on add-on services and bait and switch tactics.

So what is the right phone for me? Our recommendation is AU for those who want to be able to receive calls in the mountains or the middle of the golf course. However, if your mobile phone is for doing business then Willcom is the best choice. Unfortunately, they do not have English on their voicemail system so that could be a challenge if you are out of range and receive calls from abroad. Also, we have found that Willcom reception can occasionally be sketchy in very high buildings that have did not install mobile phone repeaters or if you are in the core of the building.

For traveling, Softbank Mobile seems to be the best option price-wise. In Australia, it was 80/minute to receive calls with Softbank and 120/minute to receive calls on AU. We have not tested Docomo internationally but all of their pricing has tended to be on the high end with services on the low end. One AINEO customer, complained that Softbank limits the amount of calls you can make when traveling abroad to 20,000 yen/month. It was frustrating for the service to stop working in the midst of a business trip in Asia and Europe.

With mobile number portability (MNP) now available in Japan, we predicted an exodus from Softbank, and especially Softbank to AU. However, Softbank has put up a good fight by introducing the best selection (to date) of new terminals, and what seems to be cheaper running costs on the monthly subscription fee. Although, AU has not kicked up the dust to draw attention to themselves that Softbank has, they have certainly played on their 3-4 consecutive years of winning J.D. Powers awards for satisfied customers. They certainly deserve the awards. As of today 31 October, AU is leading the churn wars for Japan with 100,000 new subscribers who have migrated from other companies.

Our call on the best mobile phone for Japan is if you must have a high-powered mobile phone then AU is the choice. For international roaming, Softbank Mobile has got the best pricing but is not that great outside of the major cities in Japan much like Willcom. However, if you want the perfect phone for business, then Willcom is probably the phone you want would want to arm your Japanese sales teams with. It is cost effective, reliable, and has got the customer service team to back it up. Their line-up of Windows mobile devices also makes a mobile sales person (commonly known as the road warrior) more mobile.

Let us know if you have any questions.

© 2006 AINEO Corporation

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