TOKYO -- Japan's mobile carriers are gearing up for the global shift to fifth-generation wireless communications.
The new technology offers a chance for Japan to re-emerge as a key player in the industry. For this to happen, Japanese companies will have to take an active role in the development of 5G technology and its application, and the government and mobile carriers should support these efforts.
The successor to 4G is expected to be widely available globally by 2020, dramatically raising transmission capacity and creating new possibilities for networks. For Japan, that target year conveniently coincides with the Tokyo Olympics, providing a valuable opportunity to showcase its technology to the world.
The new 5G technology promises ultrahigh-speed, ultrahigh-capacity wireless transmission. In particular, it will reduce the time lag between sender and receiver to just thousandths of a second for many applications. These fast transmission speeds are crucial if the internet of things -- a huge network of internet-enabled devices -- is to reach its full potential.
Mobile carrier NTT Docomo began trial runs in May of ultrahigh-definition 8K video at Tokyo Skytree tower in collaboration with Tobu Railway. The company is also experimenting with control systems for self-driving buses using 5G on the Kyushu University campus in a joint project with DeNA, an internet services provider.
On May 29, Kazuhiro Yoshizawa, president and CEO of Docomo, highlighted the new business opportunities 5G will create in a keynote speech to the Global Digital Summit 2017, a Tokyo event co-hosted by Nikkei Inc. and Japan's communications ministry. "We don't just want to provide telecommunications services, we also want to create new ecosystems by working with various businesses," Yoshizawa said.
Rival KDDI is also putting 8K video through its paces, sending images to a moving bus. Another player, SoftBank, is experimenting with self-driving buses using 5G in Nanjo, on the southern island of Okinawa.
There are five important issues that need addressing if Japan's 5G strategy is to pay off. The first is rapid development of technology. Both the International Telecommunication Union and Japan have set a deadline of 2020 for putting the technology to widespread, practical use. But overseas carriers are not letting themselves be bound by that timetable. They are pushing ahead with trials in hopes of creating industry standards. Japanese players must keep an eye on these developments.
Second is the issue of technical compatibility. Japanese technology is not readily adaptable to the 24 gigahertz to 86GHz frequency band that was agreed to for 5G by the ITU. Japanese carriers have been forced to go along with U.S. and European standards established in 5G trials. This is an area where the government should take the lead to protect the interests of Japanese industry.
The third issue for Japan is encouraging software development. At present, the world leaders in 5G are device makers such as Sweden's Ericsson, Nokia of Finland and China's Huawei Technologies. These are the companies that provided the technology for the trials conducted by Japanese carriers.
While it may be wise for Japan to enlist the support of these companies in building communications infrastructure, such as upgrades to mobile base stations, it should also encourage its own tech companies, such as NEC, to develop their own technologies for linking devices so that they can compete in the global marketplace.
Fourth is the question of how best to integrate telecommunications and broadcasting, an issue that has already been debated in Japan. The communications ministry has set a target for full-fledged introduction of 4K and 8K broadcasts by 2020, the same as for 5G. The ministry envisions use of communications satellites and broadcasting satellites for these ultrahigh-resolution video specifications, but 5G is a more viable option as it has broader applications and is more readily adaptable to a paid services model than is broadcasting technology. The government should rethink how telecommunications and broadcasting can be integrated for optimum results.
Finally, rules must be worked out for the use of data, and steps taken to enhance security as 5G transforms the network landscape. The amended personal information protection act, which addresses the use of big data, went into effect in late May. The new rules make it easier for businesses to take advantage of the huge amounts of data obtained from smartphones. But as 5G greatly expands data transmission capacity, traffic will grow apace.
It will therefore be necessary to set rules on who owns the data, and the scope and purposes for which it can be used in specific applications, such as internet of things and health care.