Listen to this article
Masayoshi Son, the leading impresario of Japan’s internet industry, took to the stage on Thursday with his typical showmanship, flourishing an impressive array of statistics before a packed audience of analysts and reporters in central Tokyo.
The numbers 13 and 54 popped up on a large screen at the front of the hall. “What do you think these numbers mean?” asked Mr Son, chairman of Softbank. Not one of the hundreds in the room could offer an answer.
Thirteen new handsets in 54 colours were then displayed – more shades, said Mr Son, who earlier this year guided Softbank’s $15.4bn purchase of Vodafone Japan, than any of his rivals are offering.
The gaudy array of ultra-thin models in hues of pink, green, black, blue and orange represent more than mere playfulness by Softbank.
The clunky handsets inherited when Softbank bought Vodafone are one reason Vodafone has been a fading third in Japan behind NTT DoCoMo and KDDI. DoCoMo also introduced a range of new handsets on Thursday, following a KDDI showcase lin August.
Another handicap has been poorer network coverage. Addressing this, Mr Son said that since Softbank bought Vodafone Japan – to be rebranded as Softbank on Sunday – the number of base stations had grown to 25,000 from under 20,000. The total would climb to 46,000 by March, he pledged, so that customers “can be connected almost everywhere”.
Analysts are still sceptical about Softbank’s ability to turn around its new mobile arm. One analyst who was at the presentation told the Financial Times afterwards that the new handsets bring Softbank’s range up to the standard of its rivals, but no more. “They were within expectation. They’re not pretty.”
Makio Inui, telecoms analyst at UBS, said Vodafone Japan still lags with its 3G network, which he called “extremely feeble compared to the two major competitors”. He added: “It’s going to take money to upgrade.”
The pressure is on Vodafone Japan at the beginning of October, when consumers will be able to keep their phone number when moving accounts between operators, making it much easier to switch networks.
Equally pressing for Mr Son is the debt Softbank took on to buy Vodafone Japan. He confirmed on Thursday media reports that he will securitise the mobile unit’s entire cashflow as a means of lowering interest costs.
Mr Inui says the question remains whether or not spending nearly $15bn to acquire Vodafone Japan “really made any sense in the first place”. He adds: “Whatever fate awaits Softbank’s mobile arm, it’s probably never going to pay for itself.”