With the latest Apple iPhone model hitting Japanese stores on Friday, the nation’s three major carriers are wracking their brains over how to get a lead in the market despite a plethora of similar products.

NTT Docomo Inc., KDDI Corp. and Softbank Corp. will have a hard time differentiating themselves because they offer the same iPhones, similar prices and pay plans, but also have service, speed and coverage that are comparable for most users.

Some analysts said the competition is likely to come down to cash-back incentives to defecting subscribers.

“They can’t compete with the handsets now, so communication network quality, price and cash back plans are the areas that will show a difference,” said Hideaki Yokota, director and executive analyst at MM Research Institute, which studies the technology sector.

The appearance of Apple’s new iPhone 6 and 6 plus just poured fuel on the fire, even at the pre-order stage last week.

In one example, Softbank revised its handset prices and discount plan the day after publication, apparently to respond to rivals’ offerings. Also, Softbank and KDDI followed Docomo’s lead in offering discounts to those who turn in a phone from another carrier.

With the iPhone’s debut, the competition will only intensify.”IPhone sales will probably slow down after the year’s end, so (carriers) will want to get as many subscribers as possible between now and then,” said Yokota.

But convincing consumers to sign up is difficult. One key selling point is likely to be network quality.

At a news conference last week, KDDI said the new iPhones work with both KDDI’s fast LTE and WiMAX networks and, because they are so-called carrier aggregation-ready, they can straddle carrier signals and secure wider bandwidth for faster data transmission.

KDDI is leading the fast-network competition at this point, Yokota said, but it is doubtful whether that will help attract consumers. He said the three have each run ad campaigns on the airwaves proclaiming supposedly superior network quality, so it is hard for many consumers to tell the difference. Differences in handset price and pay plans are easier to discern, but still look similar.

“I think it’s hard to show something where we can say, ‘This is really different,’ ” Yuzo Ishikawa, senior vice president at KDDI, said last week.

So, to get ahead in the iPhone competition, “I think the carriers will have no choice but to rely on cash-back (incentives),” Yokota said.

The cash-back war heated up before March up as carriers tried to poach subscribers. Incentives to switch ranged from roughly ¥10,000 to ¥50,000 per customer. Some shops offered more than ¥100,000 if multiple subscriptions were at stake.

This drew criticism that unhealthy competition was taking place and that loyal, long-term subscribers would be neglected, benefitting only the flippers.

Things finally cooled around April amid stern glares from the communications ministry. A ministry panel recently compiled a report declaring that carriers should not offer high-value cash back incentives to attract customers. But since the ministry can’t force them to refrain, Yokota said carriers will probably have to rely on cash-back incentives to survive the iPhone war.

Still, the carriers are hoping to avoid a cash-back battle if they can because they know it is unhealthy. Ishikawa said KDDI is unwilling to wrestle with cash-back incentives.

“Basically, we should aim to have a variety of things that show the difference,” he said.

Asked what would happen if other carriers fire the first shots, he replied: “It depends on the situation. If the customers go along with that, we’ll have no choice but to think about it.”

Even the current cash-for-phones offers are tantamount to cash back, Yokota said.

For instance, if a KDDI or Softbank subscriber using a 64 GB iPhone 5S switches to Docomo’s iPhone 6, Docomo will take the old iPhone as a trade-in and offer ¥40,000 worth of Docomo points, which can be used to buy Docomo goods.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.