Back to Contents of Issue: November 1999

The MPT: The Irrelevant Ministry

by Steven Herman

Seiko Noda, at first glance, seems like a typical mid-30s Japanese woman. She avows a great fondness for Snoopy dolls and carries herself with an understated elegance derived from her high-class Japanese family roots, street smarts, and a Sophia University education. But some things about her are different, as you find out when she hands you her meishi (business card)-she is Japan's Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. The MPT, or yuseisho as it is commonly referred to in Japan, should be the most important ministry at this critical juncture in history as the world fully embraces the Information Age. But to see just how lowly the MPT's stature really is among its peers, one only has to glance at Prime Minister Obuchi's appointment book. During the year, Obuchi has had countless one-on-one meetings with various ministers, LDP hacks, and assorted cronies from the corporate world of Japan Inc., but there are no indications of private meetings with his Minister of Posts and Telecommuni-cations.

Recently I had a chance to lunch with MPT Minister Noda. I couldn't refrain from doing a little lobbying on behalf of the typical Japanese Internet user. I asked Miss Noda why the MPT had not pushed NTT into offering affordable flat-rate Net access. After all, didn't everyone at the MPT and NTT realize that strangling Internet usage in Japan was hurting Japan's international competitiveness? She sighed before answering "Yes, we would like NTT to offer something like that, but they are very stubborn."

In one sentence, Seiko Noda gave me an incredible revelation. The MPT doesn't tell NTT what to do. If anything, in this land of amakudari, where bureaucrats regulate with mice-like meekness so they can land cushy jobs after retirement with the corporations they are supposed to oversee, NTT decides MPT policy. Or so it seems.

As libertarian sympathizer, I'm not usually one to advocate more government control over the private sector, but the lack of wired households and businesses in Japan should be viewed as not merely a matter of government regulation, rather it should be a national security concern. Few Japanese bureaucrats and corporate leaders seem to realize that with the end of the Cold War there was a paradigm shift into a new era, where two of the most important words became "telecommunications" and "deregulation."

If NTT wants to continue to think it's merely a telephone company that should mostly make its money by overcharging by the minute for voice calls, then the Japanese government should truly deregulate the industry. C'mon Ms. Noda (or whoever is really in charge), allow all comers to provide affordable telecommunications services without NTT having the inherent advantage of monopolizing the interconnects.

The recently announced alliance of Softbank, TEPCO's TT-Net, and Microsoft to offer a ¥5,000/month all-time Net access service hopefully will get NTT and the MPT thinking. The trio will initially offer their service direct to homes and businesses using radio waves, not lines. Insiders say cracking the NTT monopoly on interconnects is a midterm goal, with the ultimate end zone being NTT-less fiber to the home.

NTT has had a myriad of excuses as to why it couldn't offer flat-rate access. The most often cited retort was something to the effect that Japanese, never having flat rates before, just wouldn't know how to handle themselves and would gab around the clock, while Internet users would all decide to spend all day and night streaming video, thus overwhelming NTT's circuits. While I doubt the kid-in-the-candy-store scenario en masse, any fledgling telecommunications analyst could offer a compromise solution-tack on a surcharge for heavy users and abusers based on data load. That's the model that is going to emerge in most of the world in a fairly short time, anyway.

NTT has given some ground, announcing that maybe, after all, flat-rate access is something customers can and should have. But NTT decided that it would have to charge ¥10,000/month, double what the upstarts intend to charge.

A day after my lunch with Minister Noda, I sent her an e-mail, primarily to say thanks. After all, she was the first Cabinet member with whom I've exchanged name cards who had an e-mail address on the meishi.

With my words of thanks, I included a journalistic question just to test to see if she (or anyone) was really reading her e-mail. I'm still awaiting a reply. Her e-mail address, by the way, is: Perhaps you'll have better luck.

Steven Herman is a veteran broadcast journalist in Asia and Chairman of the Foreign Press in Japan. Access.

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