Why (Free) Wifi Is So Hard To Find In Japan

Posted on Friday, October 26th, 2012 by Mike Roberts

Wifi (at least free Wifi), can be very difficult to find in Japan. Many of our customers will often ask why there are no, or very few, Wifi hotspots available at hotels and cafes in Japan. They mention that in their countries, many places offer free Wifi for guests. Often it is completely open, or you simply need to ask the staff for the password. “After all”, they ask, “Japan seems to be a very technologically advanced country (which it is), so what gives?”

And their complaints are justified: There are fewer Wifi access points in Japan, and many of them require monthly subscriptions. Free Wifi is very hard to find. And at the hotels and ryokans where Free Wifi is offered, it is usually only available in the lobby. It’s understandable why travelers are disappointed by the gap between the perception of Japan as a hi-tech country with a high Internet penetration and advanced mobile usage, and the reality.

In Japan, most demand for email and Web access outside the home has long been satisfied by mobile phones. Years before the age of the smartphone, beginning in 1997 over 70 million users (the same amount as PC Web users) were enjoying Internet access through their phones (there were some limitations, but it was still the Internet). Flat-rate data plans (which only became common in the United States with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007), became available in Japan around 2004, and people began to do everything Net-related from their cellphones. For these users, there was no need for a network of free Wifi at shops and cafes.

Instead, what people in urban areas of Japan wanted was to access the Web while they were on the commuter trains while going to work. People who spend 3 to 4 hours on their weekday commute boosted the cellphone-Web infrastructure. Making a simple Wifi network within a cafe or store may be an easy task, but offering Wifi to hundreds of thousands people on moving trains is not realistic. Cellphone access might not be as fast as Wi-Fi, but cellphones are capable of being connected on high-speed trains.

But what about tech-savvy Japanese who want to use their laptops everywhere? For them, 3G and 4G network data services are available fairly cheaply. In the West, people carry their laptops around assuming that there will be Wifi on hand. In Japan, people in the same category tend to carry their own data cards or a Wifi router to which they can connect their laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc. They don’t need free Wifi that much.

If a lot of customers were to start asking for Wifi in cafes and elsewhere, then stores offering it would be able to differentiate themselves from stores that didn’t and attract more customers. However, if casual users are okay with accessing the Internet on their cellphones or over the 3G and 4G networks on their smartphones and tablets, and heavy users bring their own data cards, then the people who need free Wi-Fi are a small percentage. The cost-benefit performance for a store would be of little value, unless the store specifically targets foreign travelers.

The latest boom in the cellphone industry, however, are smartphones and tablets, such as the iPhone, which (compared to cell phones) are more like computers than phones. Their handling of heavy data, including images and videos, requires a lot more bandwidth making them more deserving of Wifi support. Smartphone/tablet users want Wifi for a better Web experience, and carriers also want to provide it because the generous flat-rate plans they offer on their 3G networks are creaking under the strain of all that heavy data. As a result, major carriers have now begun offering their own free or low-cost Wifi hotspots. But of course they cannot provide Wifi at every single location where it may be needed.

So it seems that after a decade of disfavor, the demand for free Wifi is now at a historic high in Japan. Because of that, more companies are entering the free Wi-Fi provider business recently. In December last year, an Internet service start-up called Connect Free launched a program that made it easy for shop owners to provide free Wifi for their customers. There was no cost to the stores, as the service is paid for by advertisements that appear when customers log on. Also in December, the 7-Eleven group began to offer free Wi-Fi at stores in Tokyo.

However, both services were promptly found to be violating privacy laws. Connect Free’s service collected private information including people’s Twitter and Facebook IDs, and 7-Eleven’s service blocked access to rival shopping services such as Amazon and Rakuten. Both did so without the user’s consent.

Each company responded to the charges by halting such behavior soon after their services launched. This month, the government publicly issued administrative directions against the companies. By doing it publicly, the government was effectively drawing attention to what kind of behavior is illegal, and perhaps preventing other companies from trying the same.

On April 6, another convenience store chain, Lawson, also launched a free Wifi service. However, Lawson too has had privacy and security issues — as if they had never heard about the legal problems faced by 7-Eleven and Connect Free. After they too were criticized, Lawson has announced that they will also fix their privacy problems — though at present the service is still running without the fix.

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