A week in tech

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A round-up of all the latest tech news.

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Japan

Internet
• Moody’s Investors Service disclosed its downgrading of its credit rating on Vodafone's Japanese subsidiary after internet conglomerate Softbank struck a $15-billion deal to buy it. The downgrading of the secured unsecured debt rating on Vodafone K.K. went by three notches to "Baa2" from "A2" citing that the Japanese firm will be unable to enjoy financial and other support from its British parent after the sale to Softbank. A "Baa" rating means the borrower has adequate capacity to meet its financial commitments but shows a deterioration in circumstances or the economy is more likely to lead to a weakened ability to repay its borrowings. Moody’s is putting Vodafone on review for possible further downgrade as it observes how Softbank will try to reverse a decline in the company’s earnings and subscriber numbers.

• Yahoo Japan Corp. announced that it has entered an agreement to acquire a 69-percent stake in an information service unit of Toshiba Corp. The company said it will acquire the stake in information processing and provider service firm News Watch from Toshiba for 1.3 billion yen (US$11.1 million). The unit reported sales of 1 billion yen (US$8.5 million) for the year ended March 2005.

• NEC Corp. revealed its plans to spin off its Biglobe Internet service provider business around July and sell a 30 percent stake in the ISP to Sumitomo Corp. and four other firms. With the new company’s name and capital still to be finalized, NEC said that once the business is set up, it will issue new shares to other firms. The report said that other than Sumitomo, other shareholders will likely include Daiwa Securities Group Inc.. Sumitomo has already been providing online shopping video content to Biglobe. The move to spin off the ISP is expected to produce original content and also secure a wide range of offerings from its shareholders. It will also consider tying up with third-party developers to offer content. Some of the content will be offered to Biglobe subscribers for a fee. The move is seen as NEC's bid to beef up its content distribution business by tapping other firms' capital and know-how. NEC's Internet access operations generate annual sales of around 62 billion yen ($531.8 million). Biglobe, the fourth-biggest ISP in Japan after Nifty Corp., Softbank BB Corp. and NTT Communications Corp, has some 4.4 million subscribers. According to NEC, there are no plans to have the new ISP firm go public in the near future.

Mobile/Wireless
• Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced its plans to make next-generation high-speed wireless communications available to home and corporate users so they can send and receive large amounts of data and sharp images at the same speed presently possible through fiber-optic networks. If the programme is achieved, the ministry expects it to improve the communications environment in older condominiums and office buildings that are difficult to link to fiber-optic lines, enabling residents and workers to receive and transmit high-resolution images more easily. The ministry disclosed its program to promote the advanced networking technology – an upgraded version of existing wireless LAN technology – and a UWB (ultra wide band) communications system that can send data and images about five times faster than a fiber-optic network, though the range of data transfer is limited to a single room. The UWB system will be used to connect digital home appliances, personal computers and recording.

Media, Entertainment and Gaming
• Fuji Television Network Inc. revealed that it would start the distribution of its popular news programme on professional baseball via the internet. The decision follows its agreement on profit sharing with ball clubs, which own the copyrights to related images. The program "Professional Baseball News," which started 30 years ago, has been one of Fuji TV's flagship programmes. It will be delivered online immediately after the end of the 11 p.m. programme on a communications satellite channel. The monthly charge is placed at 1,050 yen (($9). Viewers will have access to news archives dating back one month through the broadcaster's web site offering on-demand services. Fuji TV said it expects more than 10,000 viewers to sign up.

Hardware
• Toshiba Corp. said it would start selling the world's first HD DVD player in Japan later this month. The product is expected to be priced between 95,000 yen ($810) and 100,000 yen ($850). The next-generation DVD player can also play conventional DVDs. HD DVD software titles are scheduled to become available from mid-April. The company is looking to sales of 4,000-5,000 units in the first month. The company plans to expand its HD DVD product lineup in Japan by releasing an HD DVD recorder with a built-in hard-disk drive around late May. Toshiba initially intended to start selling an HD DVD player in North America ahead of the rest of the world. But it has decided to develop the highly competitive domestic market first to establish a lead over the rival Blu-ray Disc next-generation DVD format. The first Blu-ray Disc player is expected to be released by Sony Corp. in North America in July, selling for around $1,000.

• Sharp Corp. and the Japanese unit of Teco Electric & Machinery Co. disclosed that they will bring their court battle over the Taiwanese firm's alleged patent violation to an amicable settlement. Sharp sued Sankyo Corp. in June 2004, seeking to suspend the importation and sale of Teco 20-inch televisions using LCD panels produced by AU Optronics Corp., also of Taiwan. Sharp had claimed that AUO's products infringed on Sharp's panel-manufacturing technology, which Sankyo denied. Upon settling, Sharp plans to sign a cross-licensing agreement with AUO in LCD-related technology. Sharp already has a similar pact with Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corp., a major Taiwanese LCD manufacturer. Sharp is now focusing its management resources on the production of large LCD panels. Its cross-licensing agreement with AUO is seen as a step to a future deal on panel procurement.

Semiconductors
• According to the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Noda Screen Co., a maker of print circuit boards used for mobile phone handsets, will list on its second section. The company currently trades on the Osaka Securities Exchange's Hercules Market. The firm, according to TSE, has no plans to offer shares to the public prior to the share listing.

• Toshiba disclosed that it won a patent lawsuit against South Korean rival Hynix Semiconductor in a Tokyo court. The suit involved patents for computer chips widely used in mobile phones, digital cameras and portable music players. The decision favoring Toshiba said Hynix Semiconductor had infringed on Toshiba's patents related to NAND flash memory. The court ordered that sales of Hynix products found to be in violation be halted in Japan and ordered Hynix pay Toshiba 7.8 million yen ($66,000) in damages. In Seoul, Hynix said it would take all possible legal action against the Tokyo court's ruling, with the company planning an appeal.

Telecommunications
• NTT DoCoMo Inc. announced that it would acquire two telecommunications firms in Guam for a combined $71.8 million, with the aim to offer wireless network services to Japanese tourists visiting the island. NTT DoCoMo said it would set up a holding company to acquire a 100 percent stake in Guam Cellular & Paging Inc. The process will then be followed by the acquisition of the business of Guam Wireless Telephone Company LLC through Guam Cellular and the merger of the two firms. NTT DoCoMo said it will provide up to $6.5 million to boost the newly merged entity's facilities and infrastructure. The firm said it aims at deploying a WCDMA network for 3G services as it is seen as providing faster and larger data transmission operations by utilizing Guam Cellular's frequency band in the future.
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