Page last updated at 18:08 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 19:08 UK

Broadband goes big in Japan

By Michael Fitzpatrick
BBC News, Japan


Roland Buerk meets the rural communities surfing at high speed.

Just a few years ago Japan was burdened with some of the most expensive broadband on the planet.

Clumsy and overpriced, these first ventures into cyberspace shaped the way the country developed its broadband infrastructure, focusing instead on a 3G mobile internet network.

Seeing the country fall behind dramatically in terms of fixed Internet use the government decided to act: the end result was a seriously fast fibre-based FTTH 1Gbps (gigabits per second) (fibre-to-the-home) network at one of the lowest price-per-megabits anywhere.

That means a film, for example, can be downloaded in the time it takes to make a cup of tea.

Tokyo resident Nobuyuki is an enthusiastic user of Japan's so-called Hikari 1Gbps service, but it has made him spoilt:

"Funny thing is, you get used to it, it's normal," he said.

Map of the world
" ID="or story id here" STYLE="rightarrow">MAP: BBC reporters talk broadband

"It's when you go abroad you see the difference and then you realise how fast and convenient Japanese infrastructure is; and how cheap too."

Mobile application developer Taisuke Odajima, who uses KDDI's Hikari One service at work agrees:

"I think it's worth having a 1Gbps network for a couple of thousand yen more than Japan's more common 100 Mbps ADSL service, even if it's only for displaying web pages 0.1 seconds faster."

He uses Hikari for viewing YouTube's HD content, watching films and rapid file downloads. Later he envisages more creative uses.

"I am sure high-speed networks will become an ordinary and indispensable technology in a few years, when we will have a lot more large data content on the net," he says.

Digital future

With manufacturing in decline, the leaders of the world's second biggest economy believes this move to a digital, data heavy economy is inevitable. One of the reasons the Japanese government subsidises the real cost of FTTH by up to 33%.

Internet use in Tokyo
Japan wants 100% broadband coverage by 2011

The country now has one of the best price to speed ratios anywhere in the world and the Japanese government now wants to wean the country off its mobile broadband habit.

However, while the speed may be fast, access is still lagging. At present only 23.6% of the population has access to a fixed broadband connection, something the government wants to address.

"Zero Broadband Areas Elimination" is the name of the new policy, which aims to give the entire country broadband access by March 2011.

However, Japan is still the world leader when it comes to connecting homes to a fibre-optic network. 13.2 million homes are linked up, followed by the United States (6.05 million) and the People's Republic of China (5.96 million) according to the FTTH council.

Fibre optic transmission was, and still is, the backbone of government policy, with Tokyo investing heavily to get fibre into every corner of this mountainous archipelago.

Combat damage

Ironically, in the cities, carpet-bombing by the Allies in WWII ensured the destruction of Japan's old copper telecoms wiring, replaced with newer cables. This has resulted in regular ADSL lines that beat most non-Japanese services in speed by about four times.

Japan's cable internet services, with speeds of up to 160 Mbps, have four million subscribers, bringing the total number of high-speed connections in the country to around 30 million.

High-speed wireless Wimax is also now undergoing trials.

However, Japan's famous love affair with the mobile internet is far from over (Qwerty keys were always burdensome to many Japanese) and contracts for mobile phone services recently surpassed the 100 million mark.

Now, with 4G mobile transmissions on the way, the government sees a convergence of super data services imminent.

Japanese lady with mobile
Internet over 3G is still the most popular network in Japan

"At the network level, the borderline between fixed networks and mobile networks will rapidly become indistinct, and the convergence of these networks will accelerate," says Takuma Otoshi of Japan's government led Telecommunications Council in a report.

However, one perennial problem has not been adequately addressed says the same council report; the fact that compared to other nations Japan actually does very little with that bandwidth.

The country may be way ahead in low-cost, high-speed access, but in actual utilization of these advanced networks, Japan is falling behind.

"The full use of information and communication technology has lagged behind other countries in various areas starting with administration, medical care and education… Japan's Information and communication technology competitiveness has been rapidly losing ground," says the report.

The council aims to change all that by promoting telecommuting on the back of the data speed revolution, encouraging an uptake of high-definition teleconferencing, and even popularising telemedicine allowing high definition video communication between doctors and patients.

"Japan is now focusing on the development of broadband based services or content as broadband coverage expands," says Tokyo journalist, Takahiro Kikuchi, who has been covering Japan's IT market for nearly 20 years.

The boldest plan is to achieve 100% broadband penetration within the next two years he says.

"They can do it. They have budgets to accelerate broadband investment within the telecommunication and cable TV operators and are considering a satellite broadband system as a temporary option."

The next step towards ever breakneck speeds is commercialisation of 10 Gbps fibre optic deliver.

Telecoms firm Oki Japan has successfully tested a 160 Gbps long-distance, high-speed optical connection that delivers the equivalent of "four full movies" worth of data every second.

Oki expects it to be commercialized late next year maintaining Japan's bragging rights for some time to come. Just don't ask them what they will do with it.

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