January 24, 2014 4:15 am JST

Japanese wireless carriers vow real 4G coming in 2016

The Communications Ministry invited the presidents of Docomo, eAccess, KDDI and SoftBank Mobile on Thursday to explain where they intend to offer 4G services and when they plan to start.

TOKYO -- Hold on to your smartphones: the fourth generation of wireless services will likely become available in parts of Japan in 2016.

     Those are the 4G intentions voiced Thursday by wireless carriers NTT Docomo, KDDI, SoftBank Mobile and eAccess.

     All four companies hope to operate 4G services around that time, providing users with unfettered outdoor wireless speeds as fast as the fiber optic lines connected to their homes.

     If things pan out as planned, Japan could get 4G ahead of the U.S. and Europe.

     First to get 4G will be the major cities like Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, where wireless traffic is seriously congested. That will improve services for all users in these regions. It will also invigorate a wide range of peripheral industries, from the makers of communications equipment to the providers of movies and other content.

     The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications invited the presidents of these four companies Thursday to explain where they intend to offer 4G services and when they plan to start. It is the ministry's job to assign bandwidth to 4G service providers, and it aims to make its selections before the end of the year.

     KDDI and SoftBank Mobile use "4G" in the names of their current LTE (Long-Term Evolution) services, but LTE is not real 4G and the ministry prefers to call it "3.9G."

     Real 4G sends data more efficiently over more bands, transmitting as much as 1 gigabit per second for speeds roughly 10 times faster than LTE.

     The policy of the ministry and the four wireless carriers is to begin offering 4G in the major cities first, where nearly half of the nation's 140 million smartphone subscribers reside. That demographic is significant, because with the advent of smartphones the volume of per-user data traffic has grown dramatically, noted Docomo President Kaoru Kato.

     The volume of wireless communications is growing at a rate of 70% per year and the network infrastructure cannot keep pace. The result is that communication speeds can slow way down and connections can get dropped at peak traffic times. In addition, large-scale communication failures are happening more frequently.

     If movie download services and the like become more commonplace and the volume of communications grows even further, urban users may not be able to enjoy the full potential of the services, noted SoftBank Mobile President Masayoshi Son.

     For all these reasons, the wireless carriers aim to shift some urban users of existing services to 4G, but continue to provide both existing and 4G services and work to improve them both. At least in the beginning, they do not intend to introduce 4G to outlying areas where there is no problem with wireless congestion.

     Wireless communication speeds have been a bottleneck for movie delivery to smartphones and the like, but with 4G a DVD can download in 30 seconds. The technology makes it possible to enjoy even so-called 4K and 8K ultra-high definition content. And 4G may help drive the adoption of smartwatches and other kinds of wearable devices.

     In the beginning, however, there may be room for only three companies at the 4G table. The ministry has earmarked roughly 200 megahertz of bandwidth for 4G, but only around 120MHz is actually available because portions are being used by radio stations. Each provider needs a minimum of 40MHz of bandwidth to offer 4G.