Vodafone aims for second place in Japan’s mobile market

A new set of third generation (3G) mobile phones should help to turn around the fortunes of Vodafone K.K., the Japanese unit of Vodafone Group PLC, its new president said on Wednesday.

Vodafone is launching seven handsets in Japan, including the Nokia Corp. 702NK (Nokia 6630 outside of Japan) that went on sale on Dec. 8. The phones are only the first step in transforming the fortunes of Vodafone’s struggling Japanese unit, he said.

“This is not only about new handsets. My main target is to catch up to become number two,” he said. Shiro Tsuda, who took office a week ago, came to Vodafone after being passed over for the top job at Japan’s number one wireless carrier, NTT DoCoMo Inc. He had worked there for 34 years, rising to become senior executive vice president. Since he was chosen as president of Vodafone in August, Tsuda said he has spent the last four months wrestling with how to improve the Japanese unit’s poor 3G subscriber growth.

Since Vodafone took over the former J-Phone in October 2001, the carrier has failed to gain market share. Between the launch of its 3G services in December 2002 and the end of this November, Vodafone has gained a total of 296,900 subscribers to the 3G network. In November it attracted 22,500 new users to the service, according to the company.

By comparison, Vodafone’s competitor for the number two spot, KDDI Corp. signed up 294,800 new 3G subscribers in November. KDDI has accumulated 16.4 million subscribers since it started 3G services in April 2002, according to figures provided by Japan’s Telecommunications Carriers Association. NTT DoCoMo’s 3G subscriber increase for November was 504,800 and its total number of 3G subscribers grew to 7.6 million, according to the association.

When asked about what new handsets Vodafone planned to release next year and by when the company would catch up and overtake KDDI, Tsuda had no clear answers. “I promise to catch up with our rivals. … It won’t take 10 years, (but) I won’t say how many years though. It will happen step by step,” he said.