"Unlimited" Is A Marketing Term
First and foremost, it's important to clarify a common misconception: when it comes to Pocket WiFi rental plans available for tourists in Japan, "Unlimited Data" does not necessarily mean truely unlimited. In fact, these plans almost always come with a Fair Usage Policy. We have a dedicated article that explains what this policy is and why it exists (link below). Essentially, it's a strategy implemented by network carriers to prevent excessive data usage, ensuring that everyone can have the best experience with mobile internet service.
💡 It's important to remember that Pocket WiFi, despite having the word "WiFi" in its name, does not function in the same way as normal home or office WiFi routers. Pocket WiFi has a SIM card inside, enabling your phone or tablet or laptop to connect to a mobile (cellular) network, which is different from a fiber-cable network.
Ever Increasing Mobile Data Consumption
Over the past 5 to 7 years or so, global mobile data traffic / consumption has seen rapid growth. The reasons behind this exponential growth include;
- The growing use of videos and high-resolution images in social media services.
- The increasing demand for (and popularity of) streaming services, particularly YouTube and Netflix.
- Smartphones with high-quality cameras, resulting in photos and videos taken being data-heavy.
- Increased use of cloud storage apps (like iCloud, Google Photos, Dropbox) for saving photos and videos, often with auto-sync features.
- The roll-out of faster mobile internet, such as 5G, in many countries.
According to Wikipedia, global mobile data traffic has been doubling every year for the last 5 years. As of 2023, there are 7 billion smartphone users worldwide, and the number is expected to rise further as the global population grows. These stats highlight the challenges network providers face in managing this increased traffic while maintaining quality mobile internet service for their users. This situation is what forces the hand of most mobile carriers in many countries to implement a so-called Fair Usage Policy.
The Relation Between 'Fair Usage Policy' and 'Unlimited Data'
Fair Usage Policy is essentially a request from network providers to users to use mobile data in moderation. This policy in your cellular contract allows a provider to restrict download and/or upload speed if a user is considered to have used an excessive amount of data and whose excessive data use may be deemed to be negatively impacting other user's experiences.
Even if your Pocket WiFi rental plan is labelled as "Unlimited Data", it's likely to be subject to this Fair Usage Policy. This means one thing - unlimited data does not guarantee you can use mobile data unlimitedly at a comfortable speed. This is not just an issue for large western conglomerates, Japanese carriers are no exception to this rule.
Japan's Main Network Provider's Data Policies
In Japan, there are 3 major network operators who offer portable WiFi (mobile WiFi router) products for both consumers and businesses.
- SoftBank Group (including Y!mobile brand)
- WiMAX (provided by UQ Communications, au/KDDI group)
There are slight differences in their plan offerings and stance towards data allowance, but one thing they have in common is that true unlimited data plans (which some of these providers used to offer) are disappearing. Let's briefly look at the differences in their data policies.
1️⃣ Docomo: Strict data usage policy
Among the three providers mentioned, Docomo is known for its restrictive data usage policy. As a result of this limited data policy, most Pocket WiFi rental services aimed at foreigners/travelers use routers from the other two companies.
The reason for including this company in our coverage is to give you a complete picture of the network providers who have their hand in Japan's Pocket WiFi game. However, the odds that you'll come across a Docomo routers are relatively small.
2️⃣ SoftBank: Generous data allowance policy for businesses
A typical Pocket WiFi plan under the SoftBank network offers a wide range of data allotments based on contract types, and it's considerably more generous than Docomo (with nearly the same national coverage). This is also the reason why most of the Pocket WiFi providers, especially the ones geared towards travelers, use SoftBank's Pocket WiFi.
3️⃣ WiMAX (KDDI): Used to be unlimited (now in question)
WiMAX's portable wifi router, while at one time did offer a truly unlimited data plan, has now stopped using this claim in advertisements geared towards the average consumer. This is in part due to more stringent regulations from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications on what can be called "Unlimited Data".
On the other hand, the same cannot be said for WiMAX's dealings when selling rental units to other businesses. In this case the Unlimited Data plan may still exist (although I have no evidence to verify this). Aside from that, it's important to point out that WiMAX has less coverage area compared to Pocket WiFi using the SoftBank or Docomo networks (in buildings, underground, and in rural parts of Japan, although it's improving year by year). Because of this coverage weakness, WiMAX's popularity has suffered among traveler geared Pocket WiFi rental companies.
"Unlimited Data" Buzzword Is Being Abused By Pocket WiFi Providers
The service of unlimited data, while it may have existed in the past, is becoming increasingly difficult for these large networks to guarantee. Therefore Pocket WiFi devices now typically come with Fair Usage Policies.
So don't take rental company's word for it when you see Pocket WiFi being advertised as "Unlimited Data"! What that usually means, is that those rental providers will allow you to use data indefinitely but the speed will be restricted after a user exceeds a certain usage point. Some may consider it intentionally misleading to call something "Unlimited" when a Pocket WiFi rental company knows the service might not maintain the same quality if used over a certain extent in a given period of time, but we'll leave that up to you.
Below is a great example of how this "Unlimited Data" advertising tactic is being used by certain rental providers
This particular website uses the word "Unlimited" but explains about the speed reduction in hard to read fine print at the bottom of the screen.
Does Having "Unlimited Data" Really Make Any Difference?
The point we're trying to make here is simple, stop chasing "Unlimited Data".
First off, there is mostly likely no need. It would be almost impossible to use that much data over the course of your trip here in Japan. A couple of GBs a day is more than enough for the typical user to fulfill his or her internet requirements for most standard vacation lengths.
eConnect Japan Offers 20GB, 50GB, and even 100GB Plans
Instead of going after the vaguely defined "Unlimited Data" plans, why not choose plans that offer a substantial amount of GB, which is likely more than what you need?
At eConnect Japan, we provide data plans tailored for traveler, ranging from 20GB (Economy Plan) for casual internet usage to a whopping 100GB (Monster Plan). This range should comfortably cover the requirements of 99% of users.
If you're unsure whether you're a casual or heavy internet user, you probably fall somewhere in the middle. In that case, our Premium Plan (50GB of data and our most popular plan) would likely be the best fit for you.
And what's more, we always make it clear to our users how much data (GB) can be used at high speed before a possible speed restriction occurs.
Our message is that picking a plan based on first instincts and buzzwords may end up with resulting in a service/plan that doesn't jive with your vacation usage habits. If you asses your needs beforehand and pick a plan that suits your data needs best, it's very unlikely you will run out of data.
Safe Travels! And don't forget to check our Japan Pocket WiFi Rental Plans!