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KDDI Corp., taking full advantage of the number portability system, said Wednesday that it added a net 249,400 new subscribers in April compared with only 65,800 for NTT DoCoMo Inc., the nation’s largest mobile phone operator.

April is one of the busiest months for mobile phone campaigns because it marks the beginning of both the new business year and new school year.

Under number portability, introduced last October, customers can retain their original phone numbers even when switching service providers.

“The sign-ups were below our estimates,” DoCoMo spokesman Takeshi Kugimaru said.

The net increase brings KDDI’s total subscribers to 28.4 million, narrowing the gap with DoCoMo, which has 52.7 million. Softbank Mobile Corp., the smallest of the big three, added 163,600 subscribers in the month, expanding its customer base to 16 million.

KDDI has been gaining on DoCoMo each month since number portability debuted. The system has cost DoCoMo 719,200 subscribers and given KDDI an additional 900,700 new ones, according to the companies.

Softbank meanwhile has suffered a net loss of 181,000 subscribers over the seven-month period.

“Customers are happy about our wide range of One Seg mobile phone (terrestrial digital broadcasting for mobile devices),” said Haruhiko Maede, a spokesman at KDDI.

But Softbank is catching up through innovative price plans and glitzy marketing that help differentiate itself from its rivals.

According to Softbank, number portability helped it gain 4,700 subscribers from other carriers in April.

“Softbank’s 980 yen monthly subscription fee plan, called the White Plan, attracted users,” Softbank spokesman Noriyoshi Seki said. He said April is the first month Softbank has actually seen a net increase in subscribers.

Noritaka Kobayashi, a consultant on information and communication at Nomura Research Institute, said he was surprised by Softbank’s results because the company was expected to lose subscribers because of its small size. Part of that success is probably due to its tieup with Internet portal Yahoo! Japan, he said.

“Softbank’s handsets have a button linking the directory to the Yahoo! Japan portal site. Subscribers can enjoy the same experience on both mobile phones and PCs,” he said.

Softbank is also focusing on style and fashion by offering handsets decked out in the well-known Pantone color scheme to appeal to fashion-conscious people. Its high-profile ad campaigns featuring Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz have also succeeded in attracting young customers.

“The company’s wide range of color variation succeeded in appealing to fashion-conscious subscribers,” Kobayashi said.

Analysts say, however, that the impact of the number portability is almost over.

NTT DoCoMo President Masao Nakamura told reporters last month that the company is now seeing less of an impact from number portability. The No. 1 carrier saw the highest defections in November, at 163,900.

Shigeyuki Kishida, chief consultant at Tokyo-based InfoCom Research Inc., a private think tank specializing in the information and communications industry, agreed.

“Number portability caused some mobile phone users to defect to other carriers in the first several months, but the effect gradually declines over time,” he said, citing similar trends in other countries, including South Korea and the United States, which introduced number portability earlier than Japan. “The next battle will be waged next March and April.”

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