For the past several years, the Japanese mobile market has been dominated by several big stories. First and foremost is the turn-around of Softbank Mobile, which has led the market in new subscriber acquisitions for the vast majority of months during the last four years. NTT DoCoMo has also frequently been in the headlines for both its LTE launch and its successful venture into the Indian mobile market, while eMobile has done well in promoting the use of dongles domestically.
All of these events have largely left the country’s second-largest mobile operator KDDI out of the limelight despite the fact that the operator still has 33.5 million subscribers and a hefty ARPU of $60. Recently, however, there are wide reports that the carrier will launch the CDMA version of the iPhone in November 2011, which very well may put the carrier back into the into the running.
KDDI's lack of a major market initiative has been reflected in subscriber addition statistics. KDDI has gone from leading the market in net subscriber additions in 2007 to dipping to third or fourth place in subsequent years up to the first half of 2011. KDDI does own a majority share of Wimax operator UQ Communications which has been doing well in the market and now boasts over one million subscribers, but this still puts the operator solidly behind Softbank and NTT DoCoMo in terms of capturing new subscribers in the market.
EXHIBIT: Japan Mobile Market Share of Net Additions, 2007 – H12011
Therefore the advent of the CDMA iPhone could potentially be a boon to the operator. KDDI is widely believed to have the best network quality in the Japanese market, and their recent advertising campaigns have catered to this perception, although this is at least in part due to the fact that they have a smaller amount of smartphones and dongles on their network compared to rivals.
This will certainly be an incentive for operators to switch networks although it is important to note that Japan has the lowest mobile subscriber churn rate in the world clocking in at less than 1% per quarter. While mobile number portability has been available for awhile, with 75% of consumers using mobile Internet services, retaining a mobile Internet address has equal importance for many.
Softbank also offers lower calling rates to iPhone customers and there will be a significant amount of traffic generated in the market (which have yet to do away with bucket data plans) so KDDI’s ARPU and margin will go down should they carry the device. Nevertheless, few would argue that Softbank’s success in the market has been highly linked with their decision to offer the device in 2008, and in fact 30% of its subscribers are using an iPhone.
A CDMA iPhone and associated issues of pricing, churn, data traffic etc. would significantly change the dynamics of KDDI's market strategy, and it is not out of the question that NTT DoCoMo will offer the device in the near future, or at least encourage unlocked phones on its network (which it has already started to some extent). The effect of the CDMA iPhone on KDDI will also be an interesting barometer for other carriers in the region with the ability to offer the device, notably South Korea's LG U+ and China Telecom.
Marc Einstein is Industry Manager at Frost & Sullivan. For more information go to www.frost.com/