Visitors to Japan will soon be able to access Wi-Fi services free of charge, courtesy of wireless network operator Softbank, which confirmed plans late last week to launch its “Free Wi-Fi Passport” service nationwide effective on July 1. Free Wi-Fi Passport will run on a trial basis through March 2016 and will enable foreign tourists to dial a dedicated, toll-free number on their wireless handsets to obtain free connectivity to Softbank’s network of 400,000 hotspots throughout Japan. A spokesman for Softbank—the majority owner of U.S. wireless operator Sprint—said Free Wi-Fi Passport will support the English, Chinese and Korean languages and will not require users to download a separate app to their cell phones. Although Japanese rivals NTT Docomo and KDDI each boast national Wi-Fi networks of 320,000 and 200,000 hotspots, respectively, users must download specialized apps to obtain free access to those networks.
The new Wi-Fi offering appears to dovetail with a recent boom in tourism that brought a record 13.4 million visitors to Japan last year. Internet connectivity, however, has been problematic for tourists, and an official with Japan’s communications ministry confirmed that only a tenth of Japan’s one million Wi-Fi access points are available for free access by foreign visitors. With the goal of improving wireless web access in advance of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the government intends to supplement Softbank’s free Wi-Fi service with the installation of 30,000 hot spots at popular tourist destinations.