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 ( ). 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