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Setting Up an Online Store in Japan: Some Options

I wrote an article covering some of the options available to those hoping to set up an online store or web shop here in Japan. Comments/feedback welcome.

Setting Up an Online Store in Japan: Some Options

Internet at Light Speed

Here we go again. Just when I thought I was enjoying affordable, high-speed Internet access, along comes yet another new technology that makes my once-fat data pipe look like a swizzle stick. I’m talking fiber.

Fiber-optic Internet access (known as Fiber-to-the-Home, or FTTH) has been around since early 2001, when Usen Broad Networks launched its Broad-Gate 01 service in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. Later that year, NTT began offering a similar service under the B Flet’s name and Tokyo Electric Power Co. launched its own trial optical fiber service. Yet only recently have fiber-optic connections become practical for the average consumer.

One reason for this was the high cost for fiber. Unlike DSL and CATV, fiber doesn’t rely on existing telephone or cable TV lines to transmit data. Instead, fiber-optic cable (by design delicate and expensive) has to be pulled all the way to your home or office, and this is rarely a trivial task. As a result, setup costs often easily exceeded 30,000 yen. Monthly service fees for FTTH until recently had also been much higher than DSL.

Another obstacle to the growth of FTTH was simple availability. While coverage was available in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, smaller markets were not being served.

Today, however, major cities in most regions enjoy coverage and the service areas for all providers are expanding rapidly.

Fiber service is also becoming more accessible in terms of cost. Competition among the various FTTH providers is heating up, and the big three — NTT, Usen and Tepco — have begun courting subscribers by waiving startup fees altogether and bringing the monthly costs more closely in line with DSL.

NTT and Usen have even relaxed their policies on wiring communal dwellings, and will now often agree to wire units in apartment buildings and condominiums even where there are few or no other subscribers.

As a result, the number of FTTH subscribers has doubled from 172,000 to 347,000 in the past six months, according to the Home Management, Public Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry. This more is more than twice the growth rate for DSL subscribers (41.6 percent) during the same period.

But putting accessibility and lower cost aside, the main reason FTTH is so popular is performance. At 100 Mbps, nothing else even comes close. Also, unlike ADSL, which is optimized to work best when downloading data, FTTH is ultrafast in both directions, making it equally suitable for sending high volumes of data.

FTTH also addresses a major shortcoming of DSL — distance. DSL and CATV signal strength, and thus performance, degrade the farther you are from the nearest exchange. This means that while you may have signed up for a particular service hoping for 8 Mbps of bandwidth, at the end of the day you might find you are getting much, much less. Fiber-optic signals, on the other hand, experience almost no degradation as distance increases.

This is particularly important for business users, for whom guaranteed bandwidth is a requirement rather than a frill. Corporate users should avoid Internet service providers that don’t offer a strong Service Level Agreement (a document which clearly spells out the degree to which the provider guarantees the performance and availability of a particular service). Without one, you essentially have no recourse in the event of lapses in service quality.

Corporate consumers for whom the Internet is a business-critical resource have consequently had to rely on other technologies such as leased lines, which meant paying much higher fees for far lower bandwidth.

Fiber providers have responded by offering “business grade” service plans aimed at corporate customers who require guaranteed, high-performance and other optional services. What’s more, these plans are available for a fraction of the cost of leased digital circuits but still boast superior performance.

There are still very few providers offering fiber-optic service in Japan. NTT’s B Flet’s service ( www.flets.com ) might be the most well-known. After signing up for B Flet’s, however, it’s up to you to locate a supported provider for Internet access and other value-added services, such as IP telephony.

Usen’s Broad-Gate 01 service ( ftth.gate01.com ) is a “one-stop” service targeted at residential consumers. It includes the fiber-optic connection, Internet access and up to five fixed, public IP addresses.

Tepco’s Hikari service ( www.tepco.ne.jp ) requires that you sign up directly with a supported provider (such as Asahi Net, Biglobe, or So-Net) and the provider coordinates directly with Tepco on the installation of the fiber-optic line. Payments are also simplified with this service because the fees for both the provider and Tepco are paid to the provider.

FTTH isn’t available to everyone yet, but for those urban dwellers craving the next level in high-speed Internet access, fiber is well within reach.

IP Telephony

Like me, you may have noticed a recent noisy addition to Tokyo’s otherwise drab urban landscape. Clad in garish red or brilliant white, teams of Yahoo BB “parasol troopers” have suddenly landed everywhere, and trying to locate a station exit or street corner free of their hawking antics is like trying to find a product Bob Sapp won’t endorse.

Yahoo Japan’s aggressive campaign is aimed at signing up as many broadband subscribers as possible by offering a complimentary modem and two months of free service. The results have been impressive, and the firm hit its break-even point of 2 million subscribers in February after launching the service in August 2001.

However, Yahoo’s success may have less to do with simple high-speed connectivity than with a relative newcomer to broadband Internet services: IP telephony. IP “denwa,” as its known in Japanese, is a technology that uses IP networks to deliver sound data to remote terminals — in this case telephones. While there is little difference when compared to standard telephones in terms of usage and service, IP phones enjoy a distinct advantage when it comes to cost.

The reason for this is that typical telephone circuits use switches and exchanges to route calls. In the case of a domestic call in Japan, for example, the dialing party pays an access charge of 4.5 yen per 3 minutes to use the line between the originating phone and the nearest exchange, another 4.5 yen at the receiving end, and additional per-minute charges to the carrier that connects the exchanges. The intermediary connection between the two local exchanges grows more expensive with distance, and total charges can really add up. International calls use the same kind of circuit-based network, and it’s well understood that calls placed overseas from Japan are anything but cheap.

IP telephony (also known as Voice-over-IP, or VoIP) is poised to change all that, however, and broadband providers like Yahoo Japan, NTT, J-Com, OCN and Excite are all moving forward with IP telephony services for their ADSL, cable TV and fiber-optic service subscribers. The hook? Phone bills as low as one-tenth of what their customers are paying now.

The huge savings are made possible by VoIP’s network-based architecture. Unlike traditional phone lines, with VoIP your voice is digitized, then broken up into packets and transmitted over an IP network. No dedicated circuits are required, and you typically end up paying access charges for only the final, circuit-based leg of the connection.

But that’s only if you’re calling a non-IP telephone. Calls made to other users within the provider network incur no charges whatsoever, no matter how long the call lasts.

Although the rates are attractive, particularly for expats who place lots of overseas calls, there are a few limitations you should be aware of. For example, Japanese IP telephony networks currently cannot place calls to a variety of important numbers, including emergency numbers such as police (110), fire (119) and ambulance (119) services, as well as directory assistance (104), weather (177), time (117) and “free-dial” (0120) numbers.

Another consideration to be aware of is number display. Calls placed from IP phones to standard, cell or PHS phones do not include number display data, meaning that your call may be blocked or ignored. (Yahoo offers an optional number-display service for dialing standard phones.) However, moves are under way to assign numbers to IP phones using the prefix “050″ later this year. This will allow for both number display and incoming calls to IP phones without a formally assigned local number.

Getting started with IP telephony is surprisingly easy today (particularly with all those Yahoo BB folks deployed around town), and if you’re already using ADSL or another broadband service you can be up and calling in no time. All you need is a DSL or cable modem that supports VoIP.

Those currently without broadband Internet access will want to first look into local service availability, and for this I recommend RBB Today ( www.rbbtoday.com ). There are many service types to choose from — including ADSL, fiber and cable modem — but even low-end broadband services (such as 1.5 Mbps ADSL) are adequate for satisfactory IP phone performance.

Be aware that Yahoo BB is the only all-in-one IP phone solution for DSL subscribers. The others (eAccess, NTT, Acca Networks) require that you also sign up with a supported Internet service provider. If you’re already using ADSL with another network provider and a supported ISP, chances are that you can add IP phone service to your plan for a few hundred yen per month. (Though you’ll still need to install an IP phone-capable modem.)

The Japan Times: May 29, 2003

Dealing with Spam

It’s been just over a year since my personal e-mail account started getting upwards of 20 junk mails a day and I ditched it for a new, spam-free one. I created another — simple enough when you have your own domain — but found in mere months that I was right back where I started. Even taking great care not to let my personal address fall into the hands of spammers, my inbox nonetheless came to resemble the last five pages of a porno mag. How did this happen to me again, and so quickly?

As you read this, a war is on between spammers and those working to stem the flood of unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE). It’s partly a legal battle, with laws being passed in the United States and Europe that define strict guidelines for the transmission of UCE and stiff penalties for firms that fail to comply. But the Internet is a global entity, and any discussion of legislation regarding the control of Internet-borne content must eventually confront the thorny issues of jurisdiction and enforcement. Consequently little progress has been made in legally dealing with spam, though everyone agrees that a problem exists.

The scale of the problem of junk e-mail is becoming clearer as data on spam’s growth become available. Reports on the spam’s financial impact are released regularly. One recent report by Ferris Research ( www.ferris.com ) estimates the cost of spam in the U.S. alone at over $10 billion in 2003. Quantified in terms of CPU cycles, disk storage requirements, bandwidth requirements and reduced productivity, the figures clearly demonstrate the immense and growing scale of the problem.

Today spam is said to account for as much as 40 percent of all Internet e-mail traffic. This represents a 100 percent increase over just a year ago, thanks to rapidly improving technologies used to create and distribute UCE.

Among spammers’ tools are open relays, Internet-connected e-mail servers that are configured to allow “relaying” (delivery to a remote e-mail server) by anyone who connects to the system. Spammers use open relays as launch pads from which they can send spam with impunity, not having to worry about being traced.

For the hijacked open relay, consequences can be dire. Assuming it doesn’t crash under the weight of millions of e-mail messages or its own now-massive log files, it still has to face the very likely possibility of being listed in one of the many public databases created to fight spam. Systems such as the Open Relay Database ( www.ordb.org ) keep tabs on “open” e-mail servers and share this information with system administrators who wish to block messages from those servers.

These databases — called “blacklists” — are increasingly being used by ISPs and e-mail system administrators to block unwanted mail. Tokyo-based Global Online (now part of Exodus Communications) uses ORDB as part of its antispam arsenal, enabling its e-mail account holders to block messages from all listed sites.

Other tools for combating spam include off-the-shelf products, like McAfee’s SpamKiller ( www.mca fee.com ), that use an elaborate combination of filters and message rules to block or dispose of messages that appear to be spam. While these tools are effective, they have two main shortcomings. The first relates to currency in terms of the software’s ability to remain up-to-date and effective against increasingly clever spammers. The second is the problem of “false positives” — e-mail messages that get evaluated as spam and are blocked or, even worse, deleted without you ever seeing them.

Aside from relying on software tools and the efforts of spam fighters, what can you do keep your inbox free of the assorted “Make Money Quick!” ads and enticements to launder money out of Nigeria? Here are some tips:

* Never click on the “Remove Me” link in a UCE message. All this does is let the spammer know that your address is valid and working properly, meaning it will most likely be sold to someone else.

* Avoid typing your e-mail address in any online form. If you must provide an address, consider maintaining a separate, expendable address for such purposes, and also be sure to answer “No” when asked for permission to contact you with product info, special offers, etc.

* If you use USEnet (Internet newsgroups), be sure to configure your newsreader software with a bogus e-mail address or one “munged” so that it needs to be fixed before sending (e.g. embedding “*NOSPAM*” in the address, as in username*NOSPAM*@youraddress.com).

* If your Web browser allows you to automatically supply your e-mail address when connecting to anonymous FTP (file transfer protocol) sites, either disable that function or use a fake address. Savvy spammers can easily collect that address using simple HTML.

* Choose your e-mail service wisely. E-mail services like Microsoft’s Hotmail, though they employ sophisticated spam-screening techniques, are still ripe targets for spammers due to the large number of users. These high-volume servers have been targets of a long-running “dictionary” attack by China-based spammers who use guessing techniques to discover valid e-mail addresses. Some users have reported receiving spam within hours of creating a new account. (See www.spahmaus.org for more info.)

If it’s already too late to try the spam prevention tips above, you can consider starting fresh with a new e-mail account. Finally, if you want to take a more personal role in fighting junk e-mail, take the time to report spammers whenever you receive a UCE message. See www.abuse.net or www.spamarchive.org for more information on reporting spam.

See related story, “Getting to know you,” for information on resources used to harvest e-mail addresses.

Send questions and comments for Michael Rollins to michael@tajera.com

The Japan Times: March 27, 2003

The following are some of the main resources used to harvest e-mail addresses:

* USEnet and the Web — Spammers search Internet newsgroups (otherwise known as USEnet) for e-mail addresses included when participants post messages to the group. They also employ software “robots” to search Web pages for e-mail links. The links appear as “MAILTO:” tags in the HTML and will launch an e-mail composition window when you click on them. Therefore, anytime your address appears in any Web page it is ripe for harvesting by spammers.

* Mailing lists — Some mailing list software will publish the e-mail addresses of all list members if given the proper commands.

* Online and paper directories — Sites like Four11 ( www.four11.com ) and BigFoot ( www.bigfoot.com ) publish e-mail addresses over the Internet.

* IRC and chat rooms — Some Internet Relay Chat client software will provide your e-mail address to anyone who asks for it. AOL chat rooms are another favorite because the profile for each user is viewable as well.

* Web browsers — Configuring your e-mail address in your Web browser makes it relatively easy for spammers to record the address using coding tricks. Pointing your browser to www.privacy.net/analyze/ will let you see some of the information you’re sharing with the Web at large.

Is Your Wireless Network Airtight?

I’m sitting with my ThinkPad in a Starbucks near Akasaka. The cafe isn’t advertised as a WLAN hot spot, so I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying high-speed Internet access courtesy of some nearby wireless network.

I open up the WLAN properties on my XP-equipped notebook and have a look. The network name that appears is a cryptic collection of alphanumeric text that doesn’t lend any clues as to the source, but as there’s no encryption key for the network I’m able to enjoy unrestricted, anonymous access to it.

Further giving in to curiosity, I browse the Windows network and discover a domain called WORKGROUP. Browsing further I find two computers inside and eventually I have unrestricted access to the entire file system of the remote computer.

Without really trying, I have tapped into a fully exposed wireless network serving two equally exposed Windows computers, and I’m just getting started. Next I make a note of the IP address that’s been assigned to my computer and guess at the IP address of the wireless access point.

I get it right on the first try (nothing like default settings to keep things easy) and am presented with the administration screen for an AirStation WLAR-128 wireless access point. On a whim I click the configuration button and, predictably, a login window appears. I try logging in using the administrator account with a blank password and . . . bingo. Just like that, I’m in.

Were I the malicious type, and not simply exploring the vulnerabilities of a poorly configured WLAN, I could wreak more than a little havoc at this point. Similarly, I could do nothing, leave things just as they are and wait for something interesting to appear on the exposed computers.

Numerous options are available to me as I sit here enjoying a tall Americano, but in the end I track down the location of the access point — a shop on the same floor of this building — and inform the manager there of the security problems I just discovered.

This example is typical for the simple reason that it’s possible for just about anyone today to set up a WLAN. Wireless networking products can be purchased off-the-shelf at any computer store, and generally come preconfigured to make setup as easy as possible. The unfortunate byproducts of all this user-friendliness are WLANs that are woefully insecure. In other words, just because anyone can set up a WLAN doesn’t mean they should.

The most important reason for this has to do with the nature of wireless networks themselves. Unlike traditional cable networks, wireless works wherever the signal is present. If the signal exists across the street from your home or office, well, so does your network. And if this network isn’t properly secured, your network and all the resources connected to it are now exposed to anyone with a wireless card and moderate technical ability.

Wireless Encryption Protocol was developed to protect wireless networks from just this type of unauthorized access. WEP encrypts the data transmitted between access points and wireless stations such as PCs, printers and PDAs. The latest WEP version supports strong, 128-bit encryption, which is recommended for maximum security. While WEP doesn’t completely protect against hackers using sophisticated packet analysis tools and network “sniffers,” it is still adequate for most applications.

“Filtering,” or restricting access to wireless access points using MAC addresses is another means of protecting wireless networks. A MAC address is a hard-coded identifying address assigned to network interface cards, and wireless access points can be configured to allow only connections from systems with registered MAC addresses.

However, like WEP, MAC address filtering does not offer complete protection from skilled hackers armed with the right hardware. This has led to the development of new security and encryption protocols that assign access points an authentication server such as Radius.

In addition to steps mentioned above, protecting wireless access points should include changing the default network ID and administration password during the initial configuration.

Although retaining a qualified security consultant is advisable if you are publishing sensitive information via a WLAN, the best solution for most home and corporate users without especially stringent security requirements is to use a combination of the protective means available.

Check out www.80211-planet.com for more information on wireless networking security and technologies.

Send questions and comments for Michael Rollins to netwise@tajera.com

The Japan Times: May 15, 2003

Wi-Fi Unleashes the Internet

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

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