Japan's Local Communities with High-Speed Internet Access: The Case of Haramachi City
Takahiro Miyao (Professor, GLOCOM, and Head, Japanese Institute of Global Communications)
This report is written with the help of Prof. Shumpei Kumon, Mr. Adam Peake and other CAN Forum members (http://www.can.or.jp).
Haramachi City, a small town in Fukushima Prefecture, is best known for the Souma-Nomaoi, "wild horse chase", Festival (for the city's English website, see http://www.city.haramachi.fukushima.jp/english). Until recently, only a small percentage of the city's less-than 50,000 residents had access even to ADSL, high speed broadband services common-place in Japan's larger towns and cities were not available to Haramachi residents. However, Haramachi city government recently began providing high-speed wireless access service for its citizens by making use of a remaining band of the city government's optic fiber intranet, and a 26GHz Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) network providing 40Mbps both-way residential local access. Now, more than 70 percent of Haramachi households are covered by the new broadband network. This is one of a few cases of small local communities in Japan offering high-speed residential wireless access network services (for details, see http://www.city.haramachi.fukushima.jp/jouhou/fwa2.html).
The Haramachi network is the result of a local government initiative supported by the central government (Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications) in the form of subsidies for local information infrastructure construction, together with backing by a private carrier, NTT East, for the purpose of maintaining their employees in local regions. With the central government's subsidies, the city is able to utilize the public network already constructed as a local intranet and add the FWA equipment necessary to provide residential Internet service. The city rents out the wireless network and equipment to NTT East, which then acts as the service provider offering high-speed wireless Internet service to Haramachi citizens. Residents can borrow the necessary wireless access equipment for free and pay 5,000 yen per month for Internet service to the city government, which in turn pays NTT East to cover the cost of providing wireless network service. Service started in July, 2003.
The main reason why the city adopted a FWA network was to save time and capital expenses compared to providing FTTH or CATV Internet service. The city is paying one tenth of the cost that would have been incurred in the case of FTTH or CATV. 26 GHz was chosen because of its high-speed, and it can be fully utilized in the case of local cities like Haramachi City where there are not too many tall buildings blocking line of sight in this band. In other words, this kind of FWA model is quite suitable for local communities like Hamarachi City.
There are other models for local communities to set up high-speed Internet access service for residents based on FTTH or ADSL. For example, Yajima-machi in Akita Prefecture, designated as an area in economic decline, is receiving another kind of subsidy from the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications to construct an optic fiber network system and purchase related equipment for residents to have access to high-speed Internet service. This service started in April, 2003.
While these attempts are noteworthy in their effects to narrow the communication infrastructure gap between large metropolitan areas and rural regions, there are a number of problems remaining. First, there are not enough subsidies relative to the potential needs of local regions for high-speed Internet service. Second, not enough local communities are actually trying to provide high-speed Internet service for their residents, due to the lack of interest, understanding and human resources at the local government level. Third, there is always the problem of residents being aware of and actively able to utilize such high-speed services, even when they are available. With these problems aside, recent examples such as Haramachi City and Yajima-machi are encouraging signs for Japan to overcome the digital divide in high-speed Internet access between large metropolitan areas and local regions.