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Business Insight

Improving the Reception

Akiko Okamoto

Foreign visitors to Japan are often frustrated by the lack of network connection services for mobile phones. But companies are now selling SIM cards aimed specifically at travelers.

A new type of vending machine in Tokyo's seaside district Odaiba is a game-changer for foreign tourists. It sells short-term, prepaid SIM cards for internet access. The cards start at $30, passports are scanned to verify user IDs - and they can be paid for with a credit card.

The service has been launched at a shopping mall popular with foreign tourists. It takes just three minutes to purchase and activate the SIM card.

It comes as a similar business is launched at Ibaraki Airport, about 100 kilometers northeast of Tokyo. The airport is a gateway for budget international flights from Shanghai.

SIM cards went on sale this month in the airport's arrival lobby. They sell for $38 and up. When visitors buy a card, they also receive a coupon issued by the prefectural government.

The coupons can be used for discounts on regional specialties like sweets at the airport, or sake at local stores. Tourism officials teamed up with food companies to create the scheme.

"We want to work with telecom companies to provide a good network in Ibaraki. At the same time, the coupon can boost tourist spending here. We hope that will invigorate Ibaraki Prefecture," says Ibaraki Prefectural Government official Toshiyuki Sakakibara.

Despite the developments, some tourists say Japan's network service still has problems. "I thought it was expensive compared to what we get in the UK," said one foreigner. "Because we've got SIM cards you can buy data only for one month and it's unlimited data."

A solution may be on the horizon. Major Japanese mobile carriers have long shut out other SIM cards. Critics say their monthly rates are expensive. But the government has persuaded major carriers to unlock their new devices starting this month. More unlocked phones will come on to the market, and many companies see this as a business opportunity to sell SIM cards.

One expert says competition may lead to lower prices in the long run: "For visitors to Japan, they have more chance to purchase SIM cards which can be used at local cost and easier," says Nomura Research Institute senior consultant Satoshi Awamura. "I think this kind of movement will have a potential to affect to increase various kinds of services to visitors to Japan."

Japanese people are getting more out of their mobile devices as the industry liberalizes. It is a trend that is also making it easier for foreign tourists to stay connected when they visit Japan.

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