For phone users, finding the right network service provider can be a problematic and frustrating experience, especially here in Japan.
Until just a few years ago, customers only had three networks to choose from. However, new legislation passed in 2015, opening up the market to wider competition. Since then, a number of new players have entered the fray to challenge the market monopoly of AU, SoftBank and Docomo.
One of these new entrants is Mobal Japan.
Mobal however have something that sets them aside from the competition — a sense of charity and social responsibility. Every time you buy a Mobal SIM card, or sign up for one of their calling and data plans, a portion of your money goes to help some of the world’s neediest children.
I recently sat down with Declan Somers from Seibo, a charity partnered with Mobal. Together, they provide not just excellent phone options for customers but also help to feed and educate children in Malawi.
Somers first got directly involved with Mobal's efforts in Malawi in 2012 as a volunteer. This planned short stay ended up lasting three years.
“I saw first-hand the work that, unbeknownst to me, the profits of Mobal had been contributing to. And I fell in love with Malawi,” he said.
However, just as things in Malawi began to really take shape, a new challenge emerged. In 2015, the country suffered the worst floods in the country’s living memory, suddenly displacing a quarter of a million people.
“Suddenly there were thousands of children in need in our community and we had to act,” said Somers.
Thankfully, Seibo, with Mobal’s support, was on hand to help out. They began their school meals program in February 2016 and since then, the program has gone from strength to strength.
So, how exactly does Mobal’s system work, and what sets them aside from the other network providers in Japan?
Mobal offers SIM cards and calling and data contracts to mobile device users in Japan, but not the phones themselves. They are what is known as an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). An MVNO is a company that provides line rental and network access to customers, but does not actually own the network infrastructure. There are a number of such operators in Japan, piggybacking on the main networks AU, Docomo and SoftBank.
Somers explained just how exactly Mobal stands out from the competition when it comes to attracting international customers.
“Mobal are the only company that offer a Japanese phone number (voice) and data SIM card with no contract to anybody, even if you’re not yet a resident of Japan. That means you can know your phone number before you arrive as well as have data working the moment your plane lands. No contract means no termination fee. No termination fee means you can cancel anytime,” he said.
Anyone who has ever tried to set up a new phone account after arriving in Japan knows how stressful this can be, especially if you’re only here short term and don’t have a residence card. The idea of having a phone that is working and ready to go upon arrival is also reassuring for business professionals in today’s world where even a few hours offline can be costly and inconvenient.
Indeed, Mobal goes that step further to make the whole process as smooth as possible for visitors to Japan, as Somers continued: “The fact that you can either opt to have it delivered to your home anywhere in the world or pick it up from Narita, Haneda, Kansai, Sendai airports or in downtown Tokyo is also quite handy.”
“For tourists it's also pretty amazing as the only option before Mobal was to rent a phone in the airport and pay extraordinary high daily rental fees,” he added.
However, Mobal’s services aren’t just for those planning a short stay in Japan. They also offer a number of solutions for long-term residents here too.
“For long-term residents we offer them a flat fee of ¥4,500 monthly for life and the option to pay by cash at convenience stores. If you leave Japan from anywhere from one month to one year, we can switch your SIM off during that period for free, you won't be billed for that period, and we can restart again with the same number on your return to Japan,” Somers said.
“Calls to numbers on the SoftBank network are free 20 hours a day too so if you call a fellow Mobal user during social hours you can talk for free — for as long as you like,” he said.
Long-term residents will find this price point particularly eye-catching. ¥4,500 per month is around half of what the “Big 3” of SoftBank, Docomo and AU charge their customers per month, with the additional handicap of locking them into a two-year contract.
Account administration can also be a very tricky business in Japan. Most phone providers do not offer English online assistance, and though they do offer English helplines, these are often through a translator, rather than talking directly with an English-speaking member of staff.
Mobal has no such issues. “Everything is done through an online account in English so you can change your plan, check your call charges, request data top-ups or cancel at will,” Somers said.
It almost seems too good to be true doesn’t it? With this in mind, I asked Somers how exactly are Mobal able to offer such low cost rates.
“Initially we conceived this product as a solution for Japanese people living overseas. Japanese customers who were no longer resident in Japan had similar needs to expats and tourists in that they needed a non-contract Japanese SIM with both voice and data capability,” he said.
Mobal, through its brand Hanacell.com, had the largest market share of overseas Japanese users with several thousand in the U.S. alone. With a little tweaking, it transpired that the product was also perfectly suited to a non-Japanese audience too.
“Mobal promotes their services through a non-Japanese registered company. That's why we sell online only and why we don't need to charge an additional 8% consumption tax on our monthly fees,” Somers explained.
Of course the one major drawback of using an MVNO such as Mobal is that they don’t provide handsets. Somers reassured me however, that in most cases, if you bring a phone from your own country, it should work here in Japan too.
He elaborated: “In principle any unlocked iPhone or Android should work but if the model is only 3G compatible, for example, then people will have issues.”
So, provided your phone is unlocked and able to receive 4G LTE signals, then you should be fine.
Beyond all this though, is the positivity and that warm feeling inside that comes from knowing you’re also doing your bit to help a great cause. Thanks to Mobal, Seibo has accomplished some truly wonderful things in Malawi thus far.
“To date, we have received approximately $350,000 which helps us commit to feeding 14,000 children every day in primary and nursery schools in Malawi,” said Somers.
If you’re looking for an easily accessible, high quality low cost phone solution which also allows you to do your bit for a good cause, then visit Mobal’s website today and see what plan works best for you.
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