The Mobile Arena May Get A Bit More Crowded In Japan
By Mike Masnick, Fri Dec 10 03:00:00 GMT 2004

While the Japanese mobile market has mainly been a two company fight between NTT DoCoMo and KDDI over the past few years, Vodafone KK is looking to land a few punches, while Softbank continues to beg for an invitation to the event.

NTT DoCoMo defined Japanese mobile communications in the late 90s, but stumbled when it tried to move on to 3G with its FOMA service, allowing KDDI to get most of the attention for the early part of this decade. In the last few months, DoCoMo has rebounded, creating a battle between these two players that has taken a bite out of profits for both. Two other players are now hoping to have their shots in the ring at both of the leading dogs.

Vodafone simply hasn't had much luck at all trying to build much momentum since it bought J-Phone in 2001 and later renamed it Vodafone KK. In fact, much of the momentum has been in the wrong direction. However, sick of being a non-entity in the fight, Vodafone poached a top DoCoMo exec who has now set an ambitious goal of passing KDDI to be the number two Japanese provider. Not surprisingly, new CEO Shiro Tsuda is betting that a crop of new 3G phones can help make that possible. However, Vodafone KK has quite a hill to climb. Vodafone has a grand total of 296,900 subscribers for its 3G service. In November alone, KDDI signed up 294,800.

Meanwhile, Tsuda may soon have to start looking behind as well, as Softbank absolutely refuses to take no for an answer in its own efforts to enter the Japanese mobile market. The company that absolutely dominates the wired broadband market in that country announced its intentions to go mobile earlier this year, but so far hasn't been able to convince the Japanese government to hand over the spectrum it wants.

Of course, Softbank head Masayoshi Son is not known for giving up easily. When he wanted to get into the broadband business and faced stalling from NTT DoCoMo and the Japanese government, he threatened to light himself on fire. This time, he's just suing the government. This week, however, he's banging down the doors in the US asking for help from the US government in this battle. If Softbank wins its battle against the government (with or without US help) it's going to end up putting a lot more pressure on all of the Japanese mobile operators -- and not just Vodafone KK. However, it will definitely make the stated goal of having Vodafone KK unseat KDDI much more difficult.