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5G networks

Rise of 5G pushes Japanese companies to pick alliances

Partnerships with carriers and across industries aim to ensure survival

A highway in central Tokyo. 5G has been described as becoming a fundamental infrastructure much like the highway or a high-speed train, with the potential to change businesses.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- With superfast fifth-generation wireless poised to transform the business world, Japanese companies are seeking partners in the telecom industry and elsewhere to make the most of the technology and avoid being left behind.

"5G will be basic infrastructure for industry in the 21st century," Communications Minister Masatoshi Ishida said Wednesday after the government approved investment plans by Japan's three top wireless companies and newcomer Rakuten. 5G will rival the bullet train and highway networks in importance, Ishida predicted.

While full-fledged commercial service is not set to start until 2020, companies outside the telecommunications industry have been working to stay ahead of the curve, with many picking partners from among the carriers.

The construction industry, for example, has two separate teams developing remotely controlled unmanned equipment. Construction company Obayashi, along with carrier KDDI and information technology company NEC, successfully tested two machines at once last December. Taisei, another contractor, has partnered with SoftBank Corp. on a similar project.

Fifth-generation networks can also handle the large volumes of data needed to make autonomous vehicles feasible, fueling interest in on-demand mobility services. SoftBank Corp., the mobile unit of SoftBank Group, and Toyota Motor recently launched a joint venture for a "mobility as a service" project that has brought on board more than 80 companies in such industries as food, retail and logistics.

These innovations are driven partly by 5G's extremely low lag time, which is crucial in fields where even a small amount of lag time can make a big difference. Fifth-generation networks can also handle up to 1 million devices in a single sq. kilometer -- an order of magnitude more than their 4G predecessors.

Partnerships give businesses an opportunity to collect more data, a valuable resource that facilitates the development of a wider variety of services. They will also improve companies' prospects of success as a new competitive landscape takes shape, with the fastest movers gaining a critical edge.

Outside partnerships are also vital to wireless carriers, which need to rethink the smartphone-reliant business model they followed in the 4G era and find other sources of profit.

NTT Docomo held a 5G-related event last month that drew 400 or so representatives from companies including Panasonic, Toppan Printing, Nippon Steel unit NS Solutions, NEC, Sony and Fuji Television. Some companies were there to show off their services, while others gathered information in hopes of forging new partnerships.

Docomo's 5G Open Partner Program apparently has also helped to foster cooperation among the roughly 2,300 businesses, organizations and municipalities that have joined up. "Companies participating in the program are looking into [developing] businesses with each other," a Docomo representative said.

In smartphones, Samsung Electronics and China's Huawei Technologies are better positioned for the advent of 5G than Apple. The American company has lagged behind in offering 5G-capable devices because of a patent spat with compatriot Qualcomm that has affected its supply of crucial chips. New players could also emerge in hardware as 5G speeds enable technology such as virtual and augmented reality.

IHS Markit estimates that 5G will add $492 billion to Japan's gross domestic product by 2035.

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