Japanese Users Get Free Access to Trial WiMax Service

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Residents in three Japanese cities will get free access to a trial WiMax service that goes into operation later this month, according to UQ Communications, the operator building the network.

UQ's WiMax service will be available to users in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kawasaki for free starting on Feb. 26, the company said in a notice posted on its Web site.

The operator expects to see its network expand to include Osaka and Nagoya by the end of June, promising to post coverage updates on its Web site.

UQ's announcement sets the stage for a battle between mobile data services in Japan.

Dominated by large cellular providers for many years, the Japanese mobile data market has seen more and more competition in recent years, especially from operators targeting PC users.

For example, Japanese operator E-mobile offers netbook PCs at little or no cost to customers signing up for a year or more of service, and cellular market leader NTT DoCoMo also recently announced its own flat-rate plan for PC users. And a report in Tuesday's Nikkei newspaper said number three player Softbank is also planning to start its own flat-rate service by leasing capacity on the E-mobile network.

WiMax is an emerging wide-area network technology designed to give users high-speed mobile Internet access. The technology faces an uphill battle as most mobile operators are expected to adopt the upcoming LTE (Long-Term Evolution) mobile technology that also offers high-speed data access. One of the operators leading that charge is Japan's NTT DoCoMo, which was also the first operator to offer 3G (third-generation) mobile services.

UQ's Subscribers will eventually pay ¥4,480 (US$50) per month for unlimited access, slightly less than the cost of a comparable service offered by E-Mobile that uses HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) cellular technology. UQ will also charge a sign-up fee of ¥2,835 per user, but will waive both of these costs during a trial period that will last until June 30. After that date, users will have to start paying the monthly fee.

As part of the trial, UQ will send each registered user a WiMax card that can plug into a laptop, enabling them to access the service. That addresses one of the main challenges facing WiMax operators: a lack of equipment that supports the technology. Users who cancel the service will have to return the cards to the operator.

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