I was at Wireless Japan conference in Tokyo. It was my second time here, and instantly noticed that the number of booths has shrunk quite a bit this year than before, due to the bad economy. Hearing the presentations of the top Japanese carriers was as gloomy as the number of attendance.
The only executives who provided bright spots were DoCoMo, the top carrier, and the underdog E-Mobile. DoCoMo is the Japanese version of Verizon. With its strong network and more than 50% market share, and now with more focused strategy, they are stably strong. They are doing everything you can think of, because they can afford anything. That was expected.
Less boring is the story about E-Mobile. They started as a subsidiary of eAccess, ADSL startup, who is considered the only successful Japanese venture in telecommunication, and raised money mostly from foreign investors, such as Goldman Sachs, Temasec (Singapore), and Hong Kong strategic investors. The company is headed by a foreigner (Eric Gan, COO) so are the majority of the board members.
E-Mobile started the service in 2007, and currently has almost 1.5 Million subscribers. Although the accumulated number of subs is miniscule compared to major carriers (DoCoMo has 50 Million), but in terms of net sub increase share, E-Mobile holds more than 1/4, and is at the top for the first half of 2009. So-called Lehman Shock in fall 09 did not affect their growth pace at all.
Their technology is not anything unique - just an ordinary 3G. What makes them unique is that their service is maximized for data service. They have develped much smaller and cheaper base station (1/10 of investment, lower running cost), proviced by Ericsson and Huawei (instead of tranditional Japanese vendors). They have procured cheap "net books" originally from Taiwan and started selling with subsidy, just as the mobile handsets. "Net book" bundle strategy was hugely successful, and now that Japanese vendors have started to produce, net books accounts for 1/4 of total notebook PC sales in Japan.
Their base package is 1,000 yen per month minimum, and the new "light" plan even goes down to 580 yen if you don't use the data. With such light starting point, most users (90%) only use data (although they DO have voice package, with MVNO arrangement), which means the users have a separate mobile phone. They are introducing 21Mbps service in August, so you can ditch the landline ADSL altogether.
Their largest weak point is coverage, but because they only serve data customers, poor coverage in rural area is not as costly as others. I tried their USB dangle at my parents' home in Tokyo suburb, and had no problem using it - easy to set up, and fast enough for basic net usage. They have prepaid plan, too, so if you visit Tokyo for business frequently, you can buy the dangle and pay only for the days you use.
After 2 years of service, their existance is still quite small among Japanese big 3 carriers, but they are the typical "desruptive" technology, defined in Christensen's "Innovator's Dilenma". They are still a private company and is not announcing the financials, but looks riding along to a pernament existance in Japan - and personally, I am looking forward to seeing such international innovator making it in Japan, and will potentially change its rather closed and slow-moving culture.