The waiting is over, at least for Internet users tired of herky-jerky Web video, all-night downloads, and pay-by-the-minute dialup access. Broadband has arrived in Japan, and in cities like Tokyo and Osaka we probably enjoy the best, least expensive high-speed Internet access in the world.
The term broadband refers to high-bandwidth connection systems capable of transmitting data at very high rates. The Federal Communication Commission in the United States uses the term to describe any system that transmits data at 200 Kbps or higher, but for our purposes, we can just think of broadband as meaning fast, no-waiting Internet access.
Broadband includes various transmission media, including copper telephone wire, fiber-optic cable, coaxial cable (for cable television), and air (in wireless applications), all of which use TCP/IP for networking and Ethernet (or USB) for the final connection (via a cable modem or router) to your computer.
The broadband services currently available in Japan can be divided into three categories: digital subscriber line (DSL), fiber-optic (FTTH), and Cable (CATV). As they vary considerably in terms of price, performance, and availability, let’s begin with a close look at each.
Digital subscriber lines
DSL is a broadband service offered primarily by telephone companies, and offers transmission speeds of up to 8 megabits per second over standard copper phone lines. DSL service is only available within about 3 to 5 km of a telephone exchange, and performance drops the farther away you get from the exchange.
The most common form of DSL service is ADSL, or asymmetric DSL. It’s called asymmetric because the transmission rate for transmitted and received data is different. Data coming in from the Internet (such as images in a Web page or streaming audio) to your computer, or “downstream,” is transmitted at a much higher rate than data being sent from your computer, or “upstream.” Some providers also offer symmetric DSL (SDSL) for clients who require improved upstream performance.
DSL is targeted at consumers who use the Internet primarily for Web surfing, e-mail and downloading files. This explains the logic behind the asymmetrical design of the connection. Since most users are receiving rather then sending data, ADSL improves performance where it matters the most.
DSL service consists of two key components: the DSL line itself and the data connection to the Internet. The former is provided by a communications carrier such as NTT, and the latter by an Internet service provider like OCN or Asahi Net.
In Japan, there are currently three types of DSL service combinations. With Flet’s ADSL you pay two providers separately — NTT for the DSL line, and a service provider for the connection to the Internet.
In this arrangement, the service area is particularly wide and there are many providers from which to choose. However, it is also slightly more expensive than the alternatives.
With a wholesale provider, you pay a carrier such as eAccess or AccA Networks for both the line and the Internet connection, and the carrier gives a portion of that money to the service provider. This service is structured just like that of Flet’s, but with the line itself provided by a company other than NTT. Wholesale service costs less than the Flet’s type, but your choice of providers is limited.
All-in-one providers such as Yahoo!BB and Tokyo Metallic offer end-to-end solutions that are attractive due to their low cost and easy application and setup. They also tend to offer the fastest delivery of service, even as low as 10 working days.
ADSL service was initially offered at downstream speeds of up to 1.5 Mbps. Today, however, many carriers are offering 8 Mbps service as well for only a small premium. However, it should be noted that the performance of 8 Mbps service falls off sharply as you increase the range from the telephone exchange.
Many providers also include e-mail accounts, Web mail, Web server space, and dialup access as part of their service plans, the latter of which can be particularly attractive for mobile users who require PIAFS dialup for PHS modems.
Taking the DSL leap
The first step to installing ADSL is locating a provider for the DSL line. Your choices are Flet’s ADSL, a wholesaler like eAccess, or an all-in-one service like Yahoo!BB.
In addition to cost and performance, you’ll also need to consider service availability when looking for a provider.
Fortunately, each of the providers’ Web sites include a convenient lookup form that allows you to verify service availability simply by entering your telephone number.
After you have decided on a provider and service plan you can apply online and set the installation process in motion.
If you currently use an ISDN line at home you will be asked to replace it with an analog line because the two services are incompatible. Similarly, if you don’t have a telephone line at all you can either have one installed (for around 72,000 yen) or consider cable or fiber instead.
Your line will initially be tested to verify that it will support DSL communications. A variety of factors can affect the suitability of a line to handle high data transmission rates, such as the distance from the nearest telephone exchange, the age and condition of the line, etc. If the tests go well, the installation of the line will be scheduled for and completed sometime within the next 10-30 days.
Choosing Flet’s or eAccess means you’ll also need to choose an Internet service provider. Be sure to confirm that the provider you choose supports the connectivity provider (i.e. Flet’s, eAccess, AccA) with whom you applied. Information regarding supported carriers is prominently displayed on every provider’s Web site, although sometimes only in Japanese.
At this point, the only things that remain are purchasing the necessary equipment and configuring your systems, which will be discussed next week.
Fiber to the home
Hikari fiber is the latest offering in the high-speed Internet access arena, delivering speeds of 10-100 Mbps using optical fiber as the transmission medium instead of copper cable.
Optical fiber is largely lossless, meaning that the signal doesn’t degrade with distance as it does with copper. It also has the benefit of not being susceptible to electromagnetic interference.
These characteristics make it possible to overcome the distance limitations of wire-based services like DSL and serve a much wider geographic area.
Fiber to the home (FTTH) began as an initiative launched by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in the mid-1990s. It laid the foundation for the current spate of “opticalization” that is expected to see 10 million Japanese homes equipped with fiber-optic lines by 2005.
Today, however, FTTH is being used synonymously with “fiber” to mean simply “fiber-optic broadband service.”
Unlike ADSL, FTTH transmits data equally well upstream and downstream.
However, it too is a best-effort service, meaning that while the advertised speed may be 100 Mbps, your actual performance could be between 20 and 50 Mbps. Another factor to consider when looking into fiber is the comparatively high installation and hardware costs.
More planning involved
If you’re planning to move from Flet’s ISDN or ADSL and you live in an area already served by B Flet’s (NTT’s fiber service), and assuming you wish to keep the same provider, it’s a simple matter of changing the service plan with NTT.
If you’re looking into fiber as an introduction to broadband, or migrating from a wholesale or all-in-one provider or CATV, most or all of the following steps will be necessary.
First, you’ll need to see if fiber is available in your area using NTT’s B Flet’s Web site ( www.ntt-east.co.jp/flets/opt/opsch1.html ).
If it’s available, you can begin looking at service plans, which are described in detail in Japanese on the NTT Web site. If not, you’ll need to consider alternatives such as ADSL or cable.
After you sign up, NTT will schedule an on-site survey to verify that the installation can be performed. This sometimes also involves meetings with the building owner or superintendent to receive the necessary clearance.
Unlike new ADSL installations where your existing telephone line is used for data transmission, adding fiber service requires pulling fiber-optic cable into your premises from the outside.
Consequently, the survey and planning activities are more complicated and time consuming. Assuming everything goes well, you’ll have a few weeks to locate a provider and prepare your computer(s) to use the connection.
Usen has also recently launched FTTH services as well that are targeted at both business and individual consumers.
Cable’s one-stop solution
Cable broadband service offers the widest service area and the additional benefit of cable television programming, which is transmitted over the same line.
As many dwellings are already wired for cable, and with cable providers providing an all-in-one, one-stop broadband solution, cable is the most convenient and inexpensive option for many.
Providers such as J-Com deliver data using a hybrid network system consisting of both fiber-optic cable for the main network and coaxial cable near the home.
Transmission rates are competitive with premium ADSL services and advertised at 8 Mbps downstream and 2 Mbps upstream. ITSCOM is now offering 30-Mbps-downstream-, 10-Mbps-upstream service for only 5,200 yen per month. But like ADSL, cable is a best-effort service, so these are maximum figures.
Cable providers use standard TCP/IP networks and global IP addresses, making security a particular concern.
Providers like J-Com also prohibit the use of routers, which could be used to share a single connection among multiple computers but also to protect networked computers from attack or intrusion over the Internet.
Therefore it is important to ensure that your systems are fully protected before putting them online and exposing them to the Internet at large.
Like ADSL, you first need to check the availability of service in your area. If your home or building is wired for cable television already, chances are good that broadband service is supported as well.
After signing up, you will receive a cable modem that serves as the interface between your computer and the Internet.
After connecting your computer to the modem using a standard 10-base-T LAN cable and configuring your system’s networking you’ll be off and running.
No time like present
Broadband Internet access in Japan is fast, cheap and widely available.
Competition among the various services and providers has driven subscription fees down to a level we can all afford, and the performance just keeps getting better. Moreover, service providers such as Asahi Net and GOL now provide telephone and e-mail support in both English and Japanese. Put simply, if you’re looking for fast, fixed-rate, always-on Internet access there is no better time than the present.
Next week we’ll look at broadband hardware, configuring your systems, and Internet connection sharing.
The Japan Times: April 11, 2002