There’s a tremendous amount of initial wireless LAN network activity going on in Japan right now, but it’s still too early to say how WLAN will affect 3G. One thing is certain however: licensed-spectrum carriers are looking closely at WLAN to determine whether the technology will disrupt their carefully knit 3G network, wireless Internet, and data revenue plans. We speak with an industry insider on a recent WLAN hotspot trial conducted by a major mobile telco. But large carriers and others thinking about launching hotspot networks shouldn’t worry about finding content. First, solve the billing, roaming, and security problems — then content providers will beat a path to your door… just as happened with, oh…, for example, i-mode.
As of August, NTT Communications, NTT DoCoMo, NTT East and West, Speednet, Yahoo BB, and several others had announced full trials or even rollout of for-profit systems. Several railway companies had also announced or started hotspot trials, and systems were running on Japan Rail and private lines running in the Tokyo area.
Masayoshi Son’s Yahoo BB, the upstart challenger attempting to go head-to-head with domestic 900lb-gorilla NTT in the provision of consumer-targeted home broadband, IP telephony, and digital content, has perhaps the most extensive WLAN aspirations — and it’s not even a licensed-spectrum carrier.
In May, Softbank tied up with McDonald’s Japan for in-store WLAN service, and later expanded its web of WLAN alliances to include Doutor Coffee and Daiei subsidiary Orange Food Court. At least one McDonald’s restaurant (the one in Shibuya beside Bic Camera) is already up and running with WLAN access under the “Yahoo BB Mobile” brand (you can see shots of the restaurant in today’s Wireless Watch Japan Video Newsmagazine).
The Doutor deal saw a three-month trial begin last Friday at six Doutor coffee shops; both partners say they intend on placing WLAN access points in some 1,600 Doutor outlets nationwide after the trial. The partnership with Orange Food Court also got off the ground last week at three locations.
Softbank also has signed deals with Starbucks Japan, Denny’s Japan, and others, and is planning to establish more partnerships in the future. While we applaud all this activity — and we admire Yahoo BB for taking on some serious competition (the extremely deep-pocketed NTT) — we still don’t think anyone’s paid much attention to what i-mode the success of has taught.
Namely, you’ve got to build a robust, reliable, cheap network with a solid billing model, roaming, and security well-established — precisely what happened with i-mode itself. If you lack these, you will fail to attract any compelling content, and your network will end up as a pipeline (if it succeeds at all) providing connectivity on a commodity basis. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as data roaming in the cellular world in Japan, so there’s no instructive model on which to base non-licensed-spectrum data roaming. We wonder who will get it right first?
In addition to establishing independent WLAN networks, carriers here including KDDI are also considering dual-mode terminals that will work with existing 2G and 3G networks. Fujitsu, for one, will be there to help.
The handset maker has already announced the dual-mode Mobile Pocket Imager compatible with NTT DoCoMo’s (licensed-spectrum) DoPa packet network and the 802.11b WLAN standard.