Thursday, May 22, 2014

What to expect from Softbank

Last year Softbank, one of Japan's Big Three mobile carriers, acquired the US's Sprint Nextel. Since then, Softbank owner Masayoshi Son (the richest man in Japan) has been trying to shake things up. Those weird new Sprint commercials? Those are thanks to Softbank. Apparently Son got angry at Sprint's ineffective marketing agencies, "suggested" they be fired, and pushed for commercials imitating what has worked in Japan for Softbank. Unfortunately I'm not sure they're having much of a splash here; I think they may be a little too random and disjointed for Americans.

Most recently, Son has been in talks with both T-Mobile and the feds (both the FCC and the DoJ), trying to make a Sprint - T-Mobile deal happen. Consolidating the two would make them a match for Verizon and AT&T, the two behemoths of the US wireless market. Son has made the case that despite T-Mobile's relative success over the past couple of years, the market is effectively a duopoly right now, and the 3rd and 4th largest carriers are too comparatively small to effectively compete. Democratic officials in the government (especially FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler) have been signalling that they disagree, and that 4 is their preferred number of major competitors. Now, it seems, Sprint has lined up financing for the deal and is considering whether to move full speed ahead and damn the torpedos (!) or wait for more favorable circumstances, such as a new administration. While Republicans are generally more friendly to M&A, there's no guarantee that they will retake the White House in two years, and I'm not sure if Son will want to wait that long, potentially for little gain.

Meanwhile, it looks like Softbank has been making small moves to raise its own stock in the US, detatched from Sprint. For what purpose, I'm not sure. Lately I have seen these ads in the metro:

It looks like it's trying to make a pitch for itself and get its name out there, but..."Expect the unexpected," indeed. As someone who has lived in Japan, I am familiar with Softbank, but even I don't know what to expect from them here in the US. Though I must admit that I checked out the website and looked for a "careers" section. There was not one.


  1. Hmm. Very interesting.

    Question for you though: with all this knowledge and your experience in Japan, do you recommend just getting a Japanese phone there when expecting to be there for a year OR [drumroll] unlocking your U.S. phone for like Docomo or something?
    I've heard SO many yes and no's but I am not sure who or what to believe so I don't know what to do. Its annoying.


  2. Hey there,

    I see from your blog that you're going to be shipping off on JET soon - congrats and good luck to you!

    That's an interesting question and tricky to answer given my limited technical knowledge of networks here and in Japan. Personally I think it might be easier to just get a phone in Japan (especially if you can live without a smart phone. Sometimes I miss my low-tech "shell phone" that I had over there).

    That said, if you do decide to get your phone unlocked and contract with it over there, you need to make sure it's compatible with the Japanese network(s). Different carriers use different technology, so an iPhone purchased through AT&T and one through Verizon aren't the same - they run on different network technology.

    It looks like you'd probably be safe with a phone that runs on CDMA2000 (, (, like a phone through Verizon or Sprint.

    If you're the adventurous type, that might be a good way to save some money in the long run (if you have the cash to buy a handset upfront, unsubsidized). Personally I'd probably just get a cheap J phone for (a) the experience of it and (b) the comparative ease.

    If you have any other questions, feel free to reply back or shoot me a message!

  3. Hey just a follow up - I asked one of my senior (Japanese) coworkers about this, and he said he'd be very careful about trying to bring an unlocked phone to Japan expecting to be able to use it. He said that it's a complicated issue, but basically Japanese LTE (4G) uses a frequency band (2.1 GHz) that isn't used in the US, so devices bought from US carriers may not have the proper tech to work on Japanese networks. He said if you're using a globally available device like a Samsung or Apple phone then you *might* be ok, but it's difficult to know because this kind of question is pretty technical.