After enjoying the speed and always-on convenience of broadband Internet for about a year, I was surprised one afternoon to feel an odd pang of disconnectedness when staying at a friend’s cottage in Izu. With nary a phone line or fiber-optic cable for miles around, I briefly found myself wishing my friend had instead revealed an absence of, say, indoor plumbing.
It’s a condition of which I’m increasingly aware and think of as next-generation agoraphobia — fear of open spaces without Internet access. The good news for me and others like me, however, is that open spaces are becoming more and more connected all the time.
Nowhere is the growth of the wireless Internet more apparent than right here in Japan. Ubiquitous cell phone networks, the fastest-growing broadband subscriber base in the world and an insatiable appetite for the latest gadgets have put Japan at the forefront of Internet technology development and diffusion.
Last year, some of the most affordable broadband rates in the world enticed 4.1 million Japanese to sign up for DSL services. This year, thanks to higher connection speeds and lower subscriber fees, domestic consumers are expected to flock to wireless Internet access.
One of the key technologies behind the “unwired” Internet — PHS data communications — has actually been around for some time. But high per-minute connection rates and low speed failed to win over the wider Japanese market, for whom wireless Internet access was more of a convenience than a necessity.
New offerings from cell phone service providers NTT DoCoMo and DDI Pocket, however, have changed all that, and wireless Internet access has finally become, well, accessible.
DDI and IDO were first out of the gate with high-speed wireless connectivity, offering 64 kbps connection speeds over PHS digital networks. Today, DDI Pocket ( www.ddipocket.co.jp ) offers a variety of wireless products and services under their popular AirH” brand at connection speeds of up to 128 kbps.
Most of the AirH” lineup targets mobile consumers looking for wireless Internet connectivity for notebook computers and PDAs. Therefore, the products are available in a variety of standard interfaces and include support for all major PC and PDA operating systems.
DDI Pocket offers numerous service plans based on connection time and data transfer rate, as well as unlimited connection (”tsunagi houdai”) plans for as low as 4,930 yen per month at 32 kbps and 8,430 yen for 128 kbps.
DoCoMo ( www.nttdocomo.co.jp ) has followed suit with its own unlimited connection plan, called @FreeD, which is priced just under DDI’s comparable service at 4,880 yen per month — 4,000 yen per month for users that sign up for a full year.
While both the AirH” and DoCoMo services only cover connection time — which means you must still sign up with a supported Internet Service Provider or maintain your own dialup access point — they both offer nationwide coverage, so you can connect to the Internet from just about anywhere, signal strength permitting.
Another wireless Internet technology on the rise uses the Wi-Fi standard 802.11b to create “hotspots” where mobile users can tap into local wireless LANs (WLANs) when out of the home or office.
NTT has been expanding the service and number of locations for its Hotspot connectivity service ( www.hotspot.ne.jp ), which now boasts hundreds of locations in greater Tokyo. Also targeted at PDA and notebook computer users, Hotspot sites include cafes, hotels, convenience stores and restaurants including Le Boheme and Mos Burger.
Moreover, the service is as affordable as it is pervasive. NTT’s standard monthly fee of 1,600 yen gives users unlimited access to WLANs at any of its locations, and no other provider fees are required.
NTT also offers a one-day “passport” for 500 yen in the form of a prepaid card. All that is required to use the service is a mobile device equipped with a 802.11b (11 Mbps) or 802.11a (35 Mbps) interface, both of which are readily available in a variety of formats at computer equipment stores.
Predictably, NTT isn’t the only player in the WLAN business. Yahoo BB ( bbpromo.yahoo.co.jp/ ) is also testing a similar service, dubbed Yahoo BB Mobile, in cafes and restaurants around Tokyo.
JR East ( www.jreast.co.jp/musenlan/ ) and Japan Telecom have also teamed up to introduce wireless LANs at JR train stations in Tokyo, Yokohama, Hachioji and even Sapporo.
Not to be outdone, NTT has recently begun trials on a similar service with the Keio and Keikyu railway companies.
If you already have a Wi-Fi card in your PDA or portable computer, you might want to take a look at FreeHotspot.jp ( www.freehotspot.jp/en/index.html ) for a list of locations (in English or Japanese) that provide WLAN access at no charge or in return for your patronage.
With the wireless Web now cheaper and more convenient than ever before, I’m reminded of that now-infamous Japanese “bucho” who, at the beginning of the Internet boom, strolled into a computer store and ordered, “One Internet, please.” I’ll have one as well, only make mine to go.
The Japan Times: May 1, 2003