Mobile number portability: SoftBank’s Zero YEN campaign

SoftBank and Masayoshi Son

Mobile number portability was the major factor forcing Vodafone out of Japan

Mobile number portability: the first challenge for SoftBank Mobile

Mobile number portability (MNP) was introduced in Japan on October 24, 2006. Mobile number portability means that Japanese cell-phone subscribers (excluding PHS subscribers) can move their subscriptions between DoCoMo, KDDI/AU and Softbank while keeping the same phone number. However, number portability does not mean email portability, or portability of purchased content which in Japan is normally subject to strict digital rights management and normally cannot be transfered from one subscription to another.

SoftBank went into the MNP battle with fireworks of campaigns

  1. The “Zero YEN” campaign plays with the fire of a price war. As shown in the photograph below, from October 24, 2006, SoftBank stores prominently displayed “Zero Yen” prices for all handsets and many different services, creating the superficial impression that suddenly all SoftBank handsets and services are free of charge, which of course is not the case. This advertising trick led to an enquiry by Japan’s fair trade commission. The fair trade commission later admonished SoftBank saying that some aspects of the campaign were misleading – however the fair trade commission at the same time admonished all other cell phone operators and PHS operator WILLCOM for different types of misleading advertising. SoftBank came away quite lightly – however the photograph below shows, that the ZERO YEN signs were covered up (and are still visible below the hastily applied cover sheet of paper).
  2. The “unexpected campaign”: Softbank introduced an “unexpected” Gold Plan, which offers essentially flat fee voice calls under certain conditions, but restricted in time and length, and also restricted to calls between SoftBank subscribers only. Since SoftBank only represents about 15% of Japan’s mobile phone market, it is much easier for SoftBank to offere flat on-network plans, than for DoCoMo, since for DoCoMo a much larger ratio of calls would fall under the on-network plan. DoCoMo and KDDI therefore did not respond with any flat voice on-network plans.
  3. SoftBank’s computer systems were either overloaded, or broke down under the load of MNP, leading to irritated complaints by KDDI and DoCoMo, and some damage to the new SoftBank brand.

SoftBank Zero Yen campaign

This photograph shows SoftBank’s Zero Yen Campaign (left photograph). AFter a few days Japan’s Fair Trade Commission started to investigate SoftBank (and all other mobile operators) and admonished them for misleading advertising practices – as a consequences the original Zero Yen poster is covered up (right hand photograph):

SoftBank’s “zero yen campaign” offering mobile phones at the price of zero yen. Japan’s Fair Trade Office prohibited this campaign – and on the right hand side therefore the “0 yen” signs are covered up

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