Japan regains wireless mojo

Despite an early lead with handset-centric services like I-mode, Japan fell behind in the wireless data race a few years ago as interest shifted to Apple and the iPhone. But now, thanks to super-fast data networks and low prices, consumers are embracing always-on connectivity for laptops and giving the country’s wireless industry back its edge.

Japan now boasts the fastest commercial WiMax network in the world, cellular carriers are pushing faster 3G technology, Wi-Fi is beginning to appear on express trains, and next-generation LTE (Long-Term Evolution) services are planned from next year. These services are being offered amid increasingly aggressive competition between carries that has seen consumers offered free netbook computers in return for signing a two-year data contract.

This heightened competition among Japanese carriers can be traced back to March 2007 when E-mobile launched a 3G network and flat-rate data service. Until then, the only real competition in flat-rate mobile PC access was from Willcom, which offered a PHS (Personal Handyphone System)-based service running at several hundreds of kilobits per second. E-mobile launched with a 3.6Mbps downstream and 384Kbps upstream connection in the Tokyo area for a flat-rate fee of ¥5,980 (US$65) with a 2-year contract.

E-mobile has steadily upgraded its network and today offers an HSPA+ (High Speed Packet Access) service with download speeds as fast as 21Mbps and uploads at 5.8Mbps. Prices range from ¥580 per month and depend on the amount of data transmitted but the meter stops once it hits ¥5,980.

NTT DoCoMo, Japan’s biggest cellular carrier, offers an HSPA service with downloads at 7.2Mbps and uploads at 5.8Mbps. While it’s a slower service than E-mobile, the network covers close to the entire Japanese population so it can be used anywhere. Prices are roughly equivalent with E-mobile.

In the middle of this year, competition was turned up a notch with the debut of a WiMax service by UQ Communications, which includes Intel as an investor. The service boasts download speeds as fast as 40Mbps and uploads at around 10Mbps and charges subscribers ¥4,480 per month. It’s already available in major cities and the network is fast expanding. UQ is heavily promoting the technology and offering users to chance to try the service free for 15 days — an offer that no other carrier has matched so far.

Willcom has been struggling to keep up and was pushed to begin reselling NTT DoCoMo’s 3G service while it readied a new service based on a next-generation version of PHS. The Willcom Core XGP service started at the beginning of October with speeds of 20Mbps in each direction but it’s only available in the very center of Tokyo.

The carrier had planned a much wider roll-out of the technology but was forced to pull back its plans when it had trouble raising money to build the network.

To reassure users who worry about the limited service area for some of these wireless services, mobile access is also available via a network of Wi-Fi hotspots, including on the bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka and a new express train that began running between Tokyo and Narita Airport from the beginning of this month.

Faster wireless services aren’t far off. Waiting in the wings is LTE, a next-generation IP-based technology seen as a replacement for current 3G systems. NTT DoCoMo plans to launch a service for PC users in December 2010 and at this month’s Ceatec exhibition showed off a sample chip that supported download speeds of 100Mbps and upload speeds of 50Mbps.

LTE is expected to lower the per-packet cost of data communications so its debut will likely inject even more competition into the market.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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