Handy Japan Co., a startup providing free-to-use smartphones docked in hotel rooms, announced on Monday a capital tie-up with SoftBank Corp. to boost its service for tourists with “internet of things” technologies.

It was just about a year ago when the free handset service, which originated in Hong Kong in 2012 and has now spread to 82 countries, came to Japan. The firm said its service is expected to reach around 1,700 hotels, or nearly 30 percent of all hotels in Japan, within this year.

It was this fast growth that apparently caught the attention of mobile tech behemoth SoftBank.

“Handy has redefined the accommodation experience and the hotel business,” said SoftBank CEO Ken Miyauchi.

SoftBank will invest in Handy Japan’s parent firm, named Handy Japan Holdings Co., but the firm declined to disclose the size of investment. Miyauchi implied that it will be less than 20 percent of the total stake.

With Handy Japan smartphones, which are made by Sharp Corp., users can access the internet, make domestic and international calls, and view tourism information for free.

“We will revolutionize the tourism industry,” said Handy Japan CEO Hironori Katsuse at a news conference, explaining how the deal with SoftBank will accelerate innovation in three business areas: “hotel internet of things,” “travel agents” and “media.”

For understaffed hotels, the two companies will promote internet of things implementations such as using Handy smartphones to lock and unlock room doors without a key or key card, control electronics in the room, and check out without a receptionist.

Beyond hotel rooms, the free smartphones will serve as the center of the travel experience, said Katsuse, touting their usefulness in calling for a cab, buying online tickets or unifying various payments into the hotel bill.

In terms of media, Handy Japan will set up virtual reality headsets in each room that tourists can use to watch sports and anime or take virtual tours of hotels.

In addition, Handy Japan smartphones will be tethering-ready — which is also free, through the use of SoftBank’s communication networks. Tethering involves using a smartphone as an internet access point for other devices, such as a laptop. But hotels will have to shoulder the cost, so it will be their choice whether to run the tethering service.

So far, foreign tourists have been the main market for the free smartphone service, but with the launch of tethering, Katsuse expects more domestic guests will be drawn in.

In addition to cooperating on technology, SoftBank will offer affiliate Hotel MyStays for project trials and will mobilize its corporate marketing team of around 3,000 employees to facilitate Handy’s introduction in hotels around Japan.

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.