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5G networks

Five things to know about 5G as mobile congress kicks off

Faster networks will speed self-driving cars and AI, but cost hurdles loom

TOKYO -- This is the year that next generation mobile networks start moving into the mainstream as 5G technology is launched around the world. The possibilities opened up by 5G's significantly faster data transfer -- enabling tech revolutions in everything from autonomous vehicles to gaming -- will be the theme of  this year's Mobile World Congress, the smartphone industry's biggest annual event which opens on Monday in Barcelona.

China's Huawei Technologies and Oppo, South Korea's Samsung Electronics, and Japan's Sony are all developing 5G devices, some of which will be on display in Barcelona. 

But 5G's impact goes beyond phones, as the international debate over network-related national security risks shows. Here is a primer on this leap forward in telecommunications.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless network technology. Browsing Web pages on mobile phones caught on with the advent of 3G, while data transmission became faster and more reliable with 4G.

With speeds 100 times faster than current networks, 5G will enable transmission of larger data volumes with little time delay. It can also support more connected devices -- as many as 1 million devices per sq. kilometer.

Early adopters like the U.S. started rolling out 5G in certain cities last year, but its spread will quicken this year. Telecoms in Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region are all preparing to offer commercial 5G services.

Why does it matter?

With the updated technology, more devices than ever before can be connected in real time, bringing the concept of the "internet of things" closer to reality. While 4G was all about smartphones, 5G "can be used in wider scenarios," said Kaoru Miyamoto, manager of service planning for Japanese wireless carrier NTT Docomo.

A report by IHS Markit predicts that 5G will enable $12.3 trillion of global economic output by 2035, fostering new sectors such as smart cities and smart agriculture. Autonomous driving, which requires cars to collect and process vast amounts of data in split seconds, has become perhaps the most visible symbol of 5G's potential.

But it will take time for faster networks to become seamless enough to support self-driving cars, so consumers are likely to benefit first from faster data speeds in select areas. "Once consumers can livestream videos in crowded areas without frustration, they will feel the difference of 5G," said Takuya Kamei, senior researcher at Nomura Research Institute.

What is going to change?

"Smartphones are likely to be more connected to our lives and health care," said Mitsue Oba, senior analyst at IHS Markit, who also noted that it is vital for smartphones to be connected to different cloud services.

The entertainment sector is also likely to see early applications of the technology. 5G networks in specified areas, such as in sports stadiums, would enable various technologies including virtual reality, augmented reality and high-resolution content.

Who are the key players?

The 5G ecosystem spans makers of network infrastructure and smartphones and other consumer devices.

Companies are developing products ahead of standardization, but "this year's Mobile World Congress will reveal what everyone is doing," according to Yosuke Ito, senior consultant at Mitsubishi Research Institute. This allows companies to adapt to each other's technologies, he added.

In terms of infrastructure, Sweden's Ericsson controlled a 29.5% share of the global network equipment market in the July-September quarter of last year, according to IHS Markit. Chinese rival Huawei Technologies ranked second with 24.3%, followed by Finland's Nokia, ZTE of China and Samsung. Huawei enjoyed a nearly 30% share at its peak, but the push to block its products amid the U.S.-China trade tensions appears to be loosening its grip.

"Leading 4G players will continue to be strong because they have been involved in tests [for 5G]," said Oba, but she sees the possibility of new players emerging. For example, Japanese carrier Rakuten decided on a cloud-based network in a bid to cut costs, using hardware provided by the U.S. startup Altiostar.

What are the challenges ahead?

Cost is one of the primary challenges for 5G to become a global standard. "5G equipment -- both infrastructure and end-user devices -- will need to move down the typical electronics cost curve until it is affordable for the mass market," said Dan Hays, principal at PwC U.S. He also noted that the benefits of 5G need to be more clear in order to create markets.

MRI's Ito predicts that 2021 will be the "final stage for standardization" of 5G equipment and devices. adding that more certainty in technologies and demand will eventually trim costs.

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