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News Navigator: Will end of 3G mean farewell for Japan's old 'garakei' mobile phones?

Four "garakei" mobile phones sold by NTT Docomo Inc. are seen in this photo. (Mainichi/Tsuyoshi Goto)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the future of "garakei" mobile phones in Japan.

    Question: What are garakei, which I often hear people talking about?

    Answer: There's no clear definition, but the term is usually said to be a portmanteau of Galapagos and "keitai denwa," or mobile phone in Japanese. It refers to mobile phones that have evolved independently from international standards, such as being equipped with infrared data communication and 1seg broadcasting. Many people here use garakei as a general term for old-fashioned push-button mobile phones that support 3G, or the third generation of telecommunications standards.

    Q: Many people in Japan are using smartphones now. When were garakei popular?

    A: Various mobile carriers launched 3G services in the early 2000s. According to NTT Docomo Inc., the internet connection service i-mode for garakei reached its peak in July 2010, with about 49.07 million contracts. However, the number of users has declined since then. As of the end of June this year, the number of contracts for i-mode stood at about 3.81 million, while those for the smartphone internet connection service sp-mode climbed to roughly 47.53 million. Smartphones have stolen the show.

    Q: Will 3G services come to an end?

    A: Yes. KDDI Corp. plans to fully discontinue its 3G services by the end of March 2022, SoftBank Corp. by the end of January 2024, and Docomo by the end of March 2026. Since devices that only support 3G will no longer be usable after that, mobile carriers are calling for users to upgrade their devices by then. Regarding the frequency band vacated in line with the end of 3G, it is expected that services will be diverted to 4G and the high-speed, large-capacity 5G telecommunications standards.

    Q: So, will we never see garakei again?

    A: Even though smartphones are dominant, there remains a deep-rooted need for actual buttons instead of touchscreens. Garakei, in the sense of push-button mobile phones, are expected to continue being sold in the future.

    (Japanese original by Tsuyoshi Goto, Business News Department)

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