Japan’s mobile phone disaster

Japan’s mobile phone sector is admired the world over, and Japanese mobile phones are years ahead the rest of the world regarding functionality. However, Japan’s mobile phone industry may be heading for a disaster, similar to the European 3G spectrum license fee disaster which almost bankrupted Europe’s mobile phone operators – unless changes are made quickly. Statistics released today show that mobile phone deliveries in October dropped down to 1/4 of steady sales maintained over the last 8 years as the figure below shows.

Switch from subsidy business model to installment contract model causes Japan's mobile phone handset market to collapse (temporarily)
Switch from subsidy business model to installment contract model causes Japan’s mobile phone handset market to collapse (temporarily)

What is the reason for the disastrous drop in mobile phone deliveries?

Until recently Japan’s mobile phone operators subsidized mobile phone handsets. Consumers would typically pay YEN 10,000 (about US$ 100) for handsets with built-in digital TV, GPS, movie camera with auto-focus, electronic money and tickets, QR-code reader, and much more, which cost the operators up to YEN 100,000 (US$ 1000) per handset.

Encouraged by Japan’s Government, mobile operators recently switched from the subsidy model to an installment plan, while discounting the monthly usage fees.

While previously consumers put YEN 10,000 (US$ 100) or in some cases YEN 1 (1 cent) on the counter to receive one of the world’s most advanced handsets, since a few weeks ago consumers are faced with a 2 year installment purchase contract where they pay the full YEN 60,000 (US$ 600) or YEN 80,000 (US$ 800) for a handset in installments of around YEN 3000 (US$ 30) each month for two years. Not surprisingly handset sales dropped into the cellar as shown above (the figure above actually shows the deliveries from manufacturers to mobile operators, not the actual retail sales).

What are the likely consequences?

  1. continuing consolidation of Japan’s mobile phone handset makers
  2. surviving handset makers will push into international markets
  3. operators will push harder for cheaper handsets
  4. operators might return to a modified subsidy model
  5. NOKIA might get another chance in Japan

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