RealTime IT News

Japanese Mobile Phone Users Get Internet Access

Two bright spots in the midst of Japan's prolonged economic slump have been the mobile phone market and the Internet.

Cellular phone subscriptions, which have been growing consistently by two percent or more per month since 1996, reached 40 million in February. The number of Japanese Internet users, meanwhile, is estimated at more than 10 million and expected to double by 2001.

Seeking a synergistic effect between these two growth markets, NTT Mobile Communications Network (NTT DoCoMo) on February 22 launched its cellular phone "i-mode" packet data transmission service.

Subscribers can use their i-mode-compatible cellular phones to access text-based services from over 70 companies, browse Internet Web sites, and send/receive e-mail.

An NTT DoCoMo i-mode server acts as the gateway between i-mode cellular phones and the Internet or a content provider's leased-line site.

Through the mobile phone's LCD display and number keypad, a subscriber can do such things as confirm his bank account balance or transfer funds, buy and sell stocks, reserve event or plane tickets, review his favorite radio station's play list, or check train schedules.

The 70 companies that have so far signed on as i-mode content providers include 19 banks, 2 securities firms, 5 news providers, 3 airlines, 3 ticket reservation services, 3 radio stations, and an online bookstore.

An i-mode phone is about the same size and weight as a normal cellular phone, but has a larger (6 line by 8 character) LCD screen. The single model available when the i-mode service was launched retails for about 35,000 yen ($286), but cellular phone manufacturers plan to release more models in March.

The i-mode subscription fee is 300 yen ($2.45) per month. Service usage is charged not by connection time, but by volume of data transmitted (0.3 yen per 128-byte packet).

According to NTT DoCoMo, the cost to a user will be about 4 yen to retrieve a 250-character e-mail message, less than 20 yen to confirm a bank balance, and 20 to 30 yen to look up a restaurant's location or check the weather forecast.

In addition to the many content services, I-mode users can also access browse an Internet Web site by entering the appropriate URL. However, the tiny LCD screen means that only pages supporting the Compact HTML standard can be viewed.

I-mode subscribers can receive e-mail (up to 250 characters) as "phone#"@docomo.ne.jp.

Hoping to promote i-mode cellular phones as essential business tools, NTT DoCoMo is working with Puma Technology developed Intellisync Anywhere as an i-mode intranet application compatible with Lotus Notes Domino and Microsoft Exchange Server. It will be available in 4th quarter 1999.

According to Executive Vice President Ken Miyauchi of Softbank, which will sell and support the software, said, "the initial price is estimated at about 10,000 yen (US$82) per client. But we plan to offer a discount when the clients increase in the future."

NTT DoCoMo, which with its eight regional group companies has 57.5 percent of Japanese cellular phone subscribers, is eyeing further forays into the Internet market. In January, seeking additional know-how and support for such ventures, it purchased an 8 percent stake in Internet-technology consultancy Internet Research Institute.

On March 1, NTT DoCoMo is launching a three-month experiment in the Tokyo area aimed at linking its i-mode system with car navigation equipment.

This summer, additional Internet content services for mobile phone users will be offered through Mobile Information Dynamics, a joint venture of NTT DoCoMo, Itochu Corp., and Matsushita Communication Industrial.

Unlike the i-mode service, which relies on proprietary protocols, this new Net-access service reportedly will be based on the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), which seems likely become a global industry standard.

Rival mobile phone carriers IDO Corp., the Cellular Phone group, and the Tu-Ka group have also announced plans to offer data services based on WAP later this year.