Mobile services: Japan vs. Canada

Posted by in Mike's blog


This is part 2 of a 3 part series about how we got our phones, how we get away with paying peanuts for great service, and what our awesome “dumbphones” can do without any kind of data plan.   

Yes, yes, I know – Japan has awesome technology and it’s not fair to compare it to Canada – but from a consumer’s point of view I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth here, and not because of the technology.  It’s because of the policies of cell phone companies here.

Why I refused to use Canadian cell phones

In Canada it is well-known that Rogers/Bell/Telus will do anything they can to milk more money out of their customers.  Over the past few years they have managed to convince Canadians that the horrible options they offer for mobile service are “normal”, when they are everything but.  During the time in between the point when I called it quits on the Canadian cell phone industry and when I moved to Japan, I watched the following atrocities get normalized:

  • A fee to not only send text messages, but to receive them as well.  This is a service that transmits a tiny amount of data with a cost markup of somewhere between 4900% – 7400%.  I also watched that fee increase, which gave rise to “unlimited SMS” plans despite the concept of these messages being limited in the first place being completely arbitrary.
  • The establishment of rules about what time of day people were allowed to use their phones.  Prices outside the “special hours” skyrocketed in exchange for the special hours being “unlimited” (or, free).  Then I saw those hours change…they started to disappear.  5:00pm became 6:00pm, then 7:00pm, then 8:00pm…is it at 9:00pm yet?
  • The cost of price plans rose past the point where DOUBLE what I paid in 2006 became a “good deal”.  If Canada had 50% inflation we might consider using zim dollars.

Japan gets it right

Compared to those shenanigans, things are pretty wonderful here in Japan.  When I described the “white plan” before, it may not have seemed like a good deal – it didn’t to me at first.  I had to have my concept of mobile services realigned to understand.  There are a few basic things that apply to most (every) cell phone plan here:
  1. “Free” long distance in Japan.  It costs me the same to call someone at the northern tip of Hokkaido as it does to call someone in my living room, whether I am at the northern tip of Hokkaido or in my living room.  If I am calling a SoftBank number, it’s free.  If I’m not, it does not matter where the phone is physically located, as long as it’s in Japan.
    What does this mean?  People don’t say things like “sorry I couldn’t answer my phone, I was outside my [arbitrarily defined] ‘calling area’, and I didn’t want to pay for long distance”.  They also don’t say things like “oh, I can’t call that number, it’s long distance for me.”
  2. “Free” incoming calls for everyone.  The cost to send and receive each phone call is paid by the person who is making the call, according to that person’s price plan.  For me, that’s ¥21/30 seconds.
    What does this mean?  Phones get answered!  Regardless of price plan, of location, of time, when a phone rings it is safe to answer it.  No one is afraid of what a phone call might cost to receive.  Today I received a brief phone call from my friend and IT guru Anthony, he was in Canada.  I could not talk for long because I was in someone else’s car at the time, but his overseas phone call cost me nothing.
These two basic things mean that in Japan, we who own cell phones, who pay monthly fees in exchange for their continued use, can actually use them for their intended purpose.  I didn’t want to include this third point above because I’m not certain of it, but I think most price plans include “unlimited” SMS messages too.
Also, this doesn’t apply to us, but data plans are different here because there’s a limit on how much people can be charged.  When they reach their limit (~¥5500), they can continue using as much data as they want at no additional cost.  Data plan users could watch this awesome video in its entirety without worrying about their bill increasing.
To put everything together, here’s what we get for “free” and “unlimited”:
Calls for 21h of every day to other SoftBank users (almost everyone we know) + calls to each other at all times + SMS messages to other SoftBank users + incoming calls + “long distance” + ¥980 worth of calling to non-SoftBank users.  Oh, and call display.
We get all this for the price of ¥1970 – and 1/2 of that is the phone’s lease.  Since there are 2 of us, we pay ¥3940 every month.  I feel like we are getting our money’s worth 🙂
Next time:  Pretty smart for a dumbphone.  We didn’t get smartphones, but our phones are smarter than we give them credit for.  In case you missed it, here’s part one: Getting cell phones in Japan without selling a kidney.