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5G networks

SoftBank kicks off Japan's 5G race with March launch

Nationwide coverage pushed to 2021 on logistical hurdles

SoftBank's 5G service leverages the speed of network to stream multicamera sporting events and cloud-based games. (Photo from company's Facebook account)

TOKYO -- The race to bring commercial 5G to Japan is under way, with SoftBank Corp. unveiling plans to introduce its service on March 27.

NTT Docomo and KDDI are expected to soon announce their own plans to start service this spring. Rakuten, which enters the mobile business this April, will begin offering the fifth-generation service in June. The ultrafast mobile connections have been rolled out in 30-plus countries.

But initial coverage is expected to be extremely limited, and 5G will likely not be widely available in Japan until 2021 at the earliest.

SoftBank, the mobile unit of Masayoshi Son's SoftBank Group, will leverage the speed of 5G to stream multicamera sporting events and cloud-based games under plans detailed Thursday. It will later branch out into streaming for medical and educational purposes, as well as business services.

Customers now on 4G plans with SoftBank will be able to access 5G service for 1,000 yen ($9) a month, or free for two years if they sign up by the end of August.

But with the limited number of base stations, 5G connections will be restricted to certain areas in Tokyo, Chiba, Osaka, Ishikawa, Aichi, Hiroshima and Fukuoka prefectures for now. Even in Tokyo, service will be limited to such places as around Tokyo Station.

Technological obstacles also stand in the way. 5G signals have a much more limited range than 4G signals. Providers also cannot use all the frequencies allocated to 5G, since some interfere with satellite broadcasts.

SoftBank's competition is in the same boat when it comes to coverage, with Docomo President and CEO Kazuhiro Yoshizawa saying 5G "will start small."

SoftBank expects 90% or so of the Japanese population to have access to 5G by the end of 2021. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is looking to start allowing certain 4G frequencies to be converted to 5G as early as this summer, which would let providers use existing base stations to power 5G networks. SoftBank has 230,000 stations across the country.

5G subscriptions worldwide numbered 13 million at the end of December, according to mobile industry group GSMA. While 5G accounted for just 0.16% of all mobile connections, GSMA sees the share topping 10% in 2024.

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