Do Not Eat Your SIM Card

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2004

IF we are all such savvy travelers, well versed in the incompatibility between mobile phones in Japan and rest of the world, then why is it that certain companies selling and renting GSM (Global System for Mobile communication) services to the Japanese still feel the need to warn them not to eat their SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card?

by Michael Furniss

THAT'S AN EXTREME example, true, but it is actually happening. Are the phone companies being over-cautious, or are travelers still not as educated about the different mobile phone technologies as they like to think?

Listening to the questions that Mobell Communications, the international phone company, are still being asked by people traveling to and from Japan, it would seem that the latter conclusion is closer to the truth.

The incompatibility between phone technology in Japan and the rest of the world has been further confused in recent times by the advent of new technology. Where once your Japanese phone would not work outside of Japan, and your international phone would not work in Japan, the boundaries are now becoming more blurred. Certain phones now exist that can be used both inside and outside Japan.

You say dual-mode, I say dual-band........

Often the first stumbling block for people trying to understand the different mobile phone standards in the world is the terminology -- especially distinguishing between the terms "mode" and "band" when discussing handset technology.

The "mode" refers to the fact that the phone supports a type of technology -- like GSM or WCDMA (Wide-band Code Divisional Multiple Access). Thus a dual-mode phone uses two different types of technology in one handset.

The "band" refers to the number of frequencies on a single technology that a phone uses. For example, a dual-band phone might work on both GSM 900MHz and GSM 1800MHz. Phone handsets can currently range from single to quad-band.

It is also possible that phones can be both multi-mode and multi-band. For example, a phone could work on GSM 900MHz and GSM 1800MHz, while also working on WCDMA.

The Japanese mobile phone situation.....

There are three mobile phone technologies supported by the major networks within Japan: PDC (Personal Digital Cellular), CDMA (Code Divisional Multiple Access) and WCDMA. DoCoMo, Vodafone and TU-KA support the established PDC, and DoCoMo and Vodafone have also introduced the newer WCDMA, while AU supports CDMA. All three of these technologies are incompatible with one another.

Outside of Japan, CDMA networks exist in about 40 other countries, but by far the most common technology in the world is GSM, which exists in over 200 countries (including major destinations in Europe, Africa and the Asia Pacific). Within these countries, GSM uses four different frequencies: 850, 900, 1800 and 1900MHz.

The Japanese networks have looked to combine international CDMA, or GSM technology, with their domestic technology to offer a service to their subscribers that allows them to use just one phone -- in Japan and everywhere else in the world.

One of these major networks currently offers a service that works on a dual-mode handset, combining WCDMA in Japan and GSM internationally. Another offers the FOMA Card, which can be easily removed from the handset, and when inserted into a foreign handset can be used abroad. These foreign handsets are presently not available, but are expected to be released before the end of this year.

The other main service provider offers an international service on its Japanese CDMA phones that allows the phone to be used on the CDMA networks in Korea, Guam, Saipan, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, America, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Out of these countries, data transfer is only possible in Korea.

However, both WCDMA/GSM and international CDMA have their limitations.

Dual-mode WCDMA/GSM phones should be popular in Japan, as they allow users to keep their Japanese number abroad and their own up-to-the-minute, all-singing, all-dancing mobile phone handset -- rather than switching to a second, less modern phone with a different number to use overseas.

However, despite the obvious benefits of dual-mode WCDMA/GSM phones, few people have taken to them so far. The WCDMA coverage within Japan is still limited to major cities -- by March 2004, only 3 million people had signed up to 3G in Japan, according to the BBC. This is a low figure when you consider that there are over 80 million mobile phone subscribers in Japan today. Japanese users are still finding that their older, single-mode PDC phones offer better coverage within their home country.

As for using CDMA internationally, there simply aren't enough CDMA networks available outside of Japan; many people still need access to GSM when traveling to most places. They then look to buy or rent a GSM international phone to use specifically for travel -- and it is here that a lot of the misconceptions occur.

Many Japanese travelers are familiar with the services offered by the three service providers. They are also familiar with terms such as dual-band and dual-mode, and they think that if they buy or rent a GSM phone, they will enjoy the same benefits, such as keeping their Japanese number. This is also the case for many non-Japanese who believe their GSM phone can work in Japan.

At this juncture, consider the opinion of one regular overseas traveler, a 30-something professional who frequently travels in Europe.
"Recently, WDCMA technology has allowed the Japanese SIM card to function abroad. However, people I deal with on assignments abroad often complain: 'If you are here, why should I have to call Japan?'"

International GSM mobile phones............

It's a basic truth that if you own a phone that does not work on GSM technology, and you are leaving for one of the 200+ GSM countries, you will need to buy or rent a GSM phone. And you must be prepared for the fact that it will not be as technically advanced as Japanese phones.
There are many companies that now sell and rent international GSM phones in Japan. But before you approach them with your questions, below are five of the most common consumer misconceptions about international GSM phones:

1. It is cheaper to rent than buy a GSM phone.
Not true. The industry in Japan has traditionally been geared towards rental. This was a cost efficient method while the prices to buy handsets were high. But now that the price to buy a GSM phone has come down dramatically, you can often buy the handset and the SIM card for less than the cost of a rental for your trip. You will then have your own phone and never have to pay for a rental again.

2. Local SIM cards are better than roaming SIM cards.
It all depends on what you want from a service. Visit any travel forum and you will find people advising you to get local pre-paid SIM cards for the country that you are visiting. Using local SIM cards, you will benefit from local call rates, often meaning free incoming calls. However, the downside is that you will need to constantly replenish your call credit and change phone numbers each time you buy a new SIM card in a new country.
The other option is relatively new, but you can now subscribe to overseas post-paid services using one SIM card that works in all GSM countries (providing your handset has the correct frequencies). Previously, you had to be a national of the country you were visiting to subscribe to this type of post-paid service. You will pay a little more for your calls, but you will have just one dedicated number no matter where you are in the world. This can be far more convenient than constantly swapping local SIM cards -- and well worth the slightly higher prices.

3. You can use your Japanese number outside of Japan.
Yes and no. As explained earlier, you can only use your Japanese number if you own a dual-mode WCDMA/GSM phone (or a CDMA phone in another CDMA country). If you have brought or rented a GSM phone, you will be given a phone number registered to the country of the SIM card. That said, there are services available whereby calls to your Japanese number can be forwarded onto your rental mobile phone. Needless to say, the party receiving the forwarded call will incur an often hefty forwarding charge.

4. Your phone number changes for each country you visit.
Not true. Each SIM card has just one number. That number will be in the format of the country that the SIM card is registered to, no matter which country you visit. You will only change numbers if you buy local SIM cards in each country, getting a new local number each time.

5. GSM phones work everywhere within GSM supported countries.
Not true. Just because a country supports a particular GSM frequency, you may find that the coverage does not extend all over the country. In some of the more developing countries, such as those in Africa, you can use your GSM phone in only the largest cities. In the countryside, it may be useless.
This is by no means the final say on the subject of international phones. Technology moves fast and information that is applicable at one time can quickly be made obsolete by the latest innovation or partnership. Hopefully, what you will take from this is a clearer understanding of the problems facing Japanese travelers looking to use mobile phones internationally. And if you recall just one piece of information from this article, let it be that you should not eat your SIM card. @

Information provided by Michael Furniss of international phone sales and rental company, Mobell Communications:

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