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European Mobile Operators Change Their View of Japanese Markets
European Mobile Operators Change Their View of Japanese Markets

In October, Japan's mobile miracle, roughly summed up as "i-mode, W-CDMA, and Sha-mail," took a beating in the European press. Given the tiny numbers using i-mode in Europe, W-CDMA difficulties at home, and the alleged dearth of real revenue on Sha-mail, skeptics had a field day.

One Dow Jones opinion piece from London gleefully pointed to the anemic 100,000-subscriber count on the KPN and E-Plus baby i-modes launched with such fanfare (desperation?) seven months ago, and quoted a Credit Suisse First Boston analyst report, to wit: "The idea that i-mode will have a big impact in Europe as a standalone service looks defunct."

More criticism was targeted at DoCoMo's W-CDMA 3G technology, currently floundering in Japan versus spunky contender KDDI using QUALCOMM's CDMA 1XRTT system. DoCoMo's Euro partners must be watching this slaughter with dread, concluded the skeptics, since they, too, have opted to take the W-CDMA path.

Perhaps the most serious charges were leveled against Sha-mail, pioneered by J-Phone, and accepted by conventional wisdom as a surefire, low-tech way to make bundles of cash on 2G. All you had to do, apparently, was put a tiny CCD camera-thingy on the end of a cellphone and let fee-paying subscribers swap photos via mail to their hearts' content.

Messaging usage would skyrocket, ARPU would climb, and all the telco execs could take the rest of the day off, thank you very much. Not so, said Merrill Lynch's London team. In an October report, ML analysts wrote: "One of the issues we are concerned about ­ and this becomes more and more relevant when memory stick and external memory cards are attached/integrated on handsets ­ is the possibility that end users are taking photos, storing them on the handset, and showing them to friends from [a] local device or transferring them to PC/laptop and, therefore, not generating any traffic whatsoever. NTT DoCoMo and J-Phone have also acknowledged that subscribers tend to slow down usage of MMS pictures after [the] novelty factor wears off."

Dow Jones also cited a Nomura report that reckoned camera phones have boosted J-Phone's average revenue by a paltry EUR1.1 per user per month. Their story concluded with: "Right or wrong, Europe's mobile operators have changed their view of Japan's markets. Nowadays, it's the pessimists, not the optimists, who use Japan to bolster their arguments."

But we beg to differ. While the facts as stated by the critics may not be incorrect, the conclusions surely are. First, that 100,000 i-mode user count actually looks pretty good considering there's still only one handset (not choosing i-mode lets you select from among many other models), there's no data roaming yet (European customers are entirely used to roaming on voice and would, presumably, expect the same for data), and it's still somewhat expensive (both for contract and data usage).

When new terminals roll out later this year and next (some Java-enabled), and Euro i-moders can obtain data roaming between Germany, Holland, Belgium, Spain, and France (as they will later this year), i-mode growth will increase. Media reports earlier this summer as well as carrier surveys indicate that ­ guess what? ­ Euro i-moders actually like the service. That's why they put up with the current shortcomings.

While it may be true that W-CDMA is an expensive, overly complicated, engineering-telco-centric solution to the 3G problem (according ­ not surprisingly ­ to all the CDMA guys), its slow take-up in Japan is arguably due to a single factor, namely, voice service.

KDDI's CDMA 1XRTT 3G system is backwards compatible with the existing cdmaOne 2G system, so users of the new terminals have enjoyed nationwide voice coverage from day one, even if the network couldn't yet deliver 3G data speeds everywhere.

DoCoMo's FOMA-branded W-CDMA, on the other hand, is entirely new infrastructure, is not backwards compatible, and the Japanese, being sensible folks, have not opted to buy a handset that doesn't offer wide voice coverage. Terminals have also suffered from serious battery life and other issues.

But in December, DoCoMo will roll out a bevy of new terminals, battery lives will go up (never underestimate the Japanese when it comes to terminal innovation), and the carrier can be expected to turn on the marketing afterburners to tout the fact that FOMA will be within a few months of achieving almost 100% population coverage.

KDDI didn't prevail over DoCoMo in 2G despite CDMA's arguably better technology, and there's still no guarantee it will in 3G once FOMA gets up to speed. Furthermore, W-CDMA was designed as the 3G solution for European GSM carriers, and as such, DoCoMo adopted it primarily so the carrier could become a global player (to date, this country's Japan-only PDC network technology ensured DoCoMo's domestic isolation).

Euro carriers will move more or less en masse to W-CDMA regardless of what happens in Japan vis-à-vis CDMA. Finally, I'd like to point out that for J-Phone, launching Sha-mail has been about maintaining ARPU on the existing 2G network ­ and Sha-mail has done just that. At a time when all ARPUs are falling, boosting revenue by even EUR1.1 per user per month (about 135 yen) is not insignificant. If accurate, this amount translates into a tidy 1.75 billion yen per month ­ or about US$14 million per month. Show me a carrier anywhere that would say "no thanks" to this kind of new cash inflow.

As the cost to add a camera to the terminal tumbles (at CEATEC last month, one Sharp engineer stated it now costs about 500 yen per handset [US$4] for bulk production), carrier subsidies will fall and net profit will go up. And this marginal camera cost wouldn't have fallen unless some carrier, somewhere, seeded the market (gee, thanks, J-Phone!).

As the French (some of the most recent Europeans to enthusiastically adopt i-mode) are fond of saying, "Les sceptiques seront confondus" (the skeptics will be confounded).

About Daniel Scuka
Daniel Scuka is i-mode Editor of WBT. In his day job he is also responsible for the weekly Wireless Watch e-mail and webcast video newsmagazine, the only independent English-language media focusing exclusively on the mobile business in Japan. Originally from Toronto, Daniel moved to Tokyo in 1994 and is widely considered to be one of the foremost journalists covering wireless in Japan for English-language media.

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