It's clear that mobile data traffic has been growing rapidly especially for the last couple of years and there are many reasons behind it. Here are a couple of them:
- More people in the world, especially in developing countries, have access to smartphones and tablets as devices got cheaper
- Applications tend to use more data than ever before, naming Streaming apps (Spotify, Netflix) and Cloud apps (iCloud, Google Photos)
- Content shift from texts to videos and images on social media
- Faster mobile internet speed (LTE, 4G and even 5G) in most countries
According to Wikipedia, global mobile data traffic has doubled year by year over the last 5 years.
So it's been difficult for the network providers (carriers) to process all the traffic and to maintain the quality of the mobile internet for its users as their bandwidth is limited. Therefore, majority of the mobile carriers in many countries implement so-called Fair Usage Policy.
What's Fair Usage Policy?
This is basically a request from the network provider to users to use mobile data in moderation. And it allows the carrier to restrict download and/or upload speed if one is considered to have used excessive amount of data (above 'fair usage') that can possibly affect other users in a bad way.
Even if the data plan is labelled as Unlimited Data, it's likely to be subject to this fair usage policy. So unlimited data does not always mean you can use mobile data unlimitedly at a comfortable speed! And Japanese carriers are no exception.
Unsung Data Cap
In Japan, there are 3 major network operators who offer Pocket WiFi (portable wifi router to be more specific) products for both consumers and businesses.
- Softbank Group (including Y!mobile and Emobile brand)
- WiMAX (provided by UQ Communications)
It's little-known that 'Pocket WiFi' is actually a trademark registered by Y!mobile, the Softbank group.
So technically speaking, Docomo portable WiFi and WiMAX should not be called "Pocket WiFi".
Docomo is known for its rather strict data usage policy. So, be careful if you are looking to rent a portable WiFi device using Docomo network. You might end up getting frustrated by the speed reduction under their policy.
Data cap of Pocket WiFi under Softbank network varies depending on the contract. Some of their Pocket WiFi have large data capacity especially for businesses (like us, eConnect Japan). For normal contract for consumers, they usually have 10GB or so monthly data cap. Many Pocket WiFi rental providers in Japan use this Softbank Pocket WiFi and yet advertise it as Unlimited Data. However, we argue that it's not 100% true that you will be able to use data unlimitedly at a normal or fast speed.
So you should ask the rental provider if there is a possible speed restriction (fair usage policy in other words) when you happen to find a Pocket Wifi advertised as unlimited data.
It's possible that those providers mean unlimited data as you can still use data at slower speed even if the speed restriction is applied. If that's the case, all our Pocket WiFi is also unlimited data!
Below is a good example of how some rental providers are advertising Unlimited Data.
This particular website says Unlimited but explains about the speed reduction in small texts.
For those who use WiMAX portable wifi router, it's possible that they have true unlimited data plan. However, it's important to point out that WiMAX has less coverage area compare to Pocket WiFi using Softbank or Docomo network. People say WiMAX does not work well in buildings, undergrounds and rural parts of Japan, although it's improving over the year.
eConnect Japan offers variety of Pocket WiFi plans and some of them are advertised as unlimited data (e.g. 3G model) but we carefully insert fair usage policy information on all the pages so that people understand the conditions before renting one.
We, as a company, seek for more data cap for cheaper price for our customers who look for the best Pocket WiFi deal but right now it's quite hard for the carriers in Japan to offer true unlimited data plan as some users may use excessive amount of data that could affect the other users in the same mobile network.
It's a good chance for all travelers to fully understand that mobile internet is not an unlimited bandwidth and is shared with many users.