Ever Increasing Mobile Data Consumption
While it's clear that mobile data traffic has been growing rapidly over the last couple of years, the reasons behind this growth are less so. A couple of the major catalysts for this exponential growth are;
- As devices become more affordable, more people around the world, especially in developing countries, have access to internet capable devices like smartphones, tablets, etc.
- Applications tend to use more data than ever before, namely video streaming apps (YouTube, Netflix) and cloud storage functions and applications (iCloud, Google Photos, Dropbox)
- Social media content shifts from using mostly text to increasingly more videos and images
- Faster mobile internet speed (LTE, 4G) in most countries (even 5G in some)
According to Wikipedia, global mobile data traffic has been doubling every year for the last 5 years. And with mobile device owners projected to eclipse 7 billion by 2023 one can begin to appreciate the difficulties network providers (mobile carriers) have processing all this increased traffic while maintaining quality mobile internet for its users. This 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, which you can read all about in our in-depth breakdown of the topic (link below), is essentially a request from network providers to users to use mobile data in moderation. This clause 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 and Emobile brand)
- WiMAX (provided by UQ Communications)
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.
Docomo: strict data usage policy
Of the above 3 providers, Docomo is known for its restrictive data usage policy. As a result of this limited data policy, almost all of the foreigner directed Pocket WiFi rental services are using one of the other two companies' routers. 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 even come across a Docomo routers during your stay here are slim to none.
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.
WiMAX: 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 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 is more than enough for the typical user to fulfill his or her internet requirements for most standard vacation lengths.
Going along with this newfound understanding of how data allotments really work, we'd like to mention here that eConnect Japan offers wide variety of Pocket WiFi plans for all types of using habits. For example, our Premium plan and Monster plan offer plenty of data to satisfy the typical traveler. 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.