Japanese mobile operators are preparing for commercial 5G launches between March and June 2020, with the country’s two largest players planning to take a very different approach to deployments in other countries by focusing on cooperation and co-creation rather than higher speeds and lower latency.

Speaking at a recent 5G event in Seoul, NTT Docomo chief technology architect Seizo Onoe said given the significant investment required to build the networks, 5G will need something new and its priority is on creating new business models.

He called for 5G to be a platform for cross-industry collaboration, which he insists is the key to making the next-generation technology a success. More than 2,600 companies signed up to Docomo’s 5G open partner programme.

Onoe believes 5G will spread in a very different way from previous mobile generations.

The operator has a clear 5G plan and is targeting a commercial launch next “spring”, but Onoe wouldn’t be more specific.

Rival KDDI, which plans to start 5G service in March 2020, is also highlighting partnerships as it looks to services, with its focus on co-creating IoT services through collaboration with enterprise partners.

It aims to develop a next-generation IoT platform running on its 5G network, Yoichi Iwaki, KDDI’s chief strategy officer, said at the same event.

More than connectivity
Iwaki noted the business proposition is not just about connectivity: “We are gathering data then visualising, analysing and forecasting before sending it on”.

The operator is currently developing an IoT infrastructure with Toyota Motor for connected car services in Japan.

He said more than 150 customers are conducting projects at its open innovation lab in Tokyo.

KDDI, the second largest operator in Japan, has a long history in IoT services, with the number of connections growing more than 20-times since 2001. It started with home security and auto telematics, with growth accelerating in 2016, he said.

The country’s four mobile players together earmarked nearly JPY1.7 trillion ($15.7 billion) for 5G rollouts over the next five years. The government allocated spectrum in the 3.7GHz and 28GHz bands in April.

SoftBank and newcomer Rakuten Mobile are also targeting launches in 2020, in March and June respectively.

The three current incumbents are also working toward launching limited commercial 5G services this year, with pilots due to take place at the Rugby World Cup, which kicks-off in September.

Second wave
The first wave of commercial 5G services for consumers recently came in South Korea, Australia, the US and UK.

Japanese launches will be part of the next wave in Asia, likely joined by three of the largest operators in the world.

On 6 June, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued commercial 5G licences to the country’s three major mobile operators and national cable giant China Broadcasting Network.

Chinese operators are expected to spend about $150 billion to deploy commercial services sometime in 2020.

Meanwhile, Singapore is pushing deployment of the standalone version of 5G from the start, with plans to allocate suitable spectrum in December.

Harin Grewal, director of network, technology and resilience at the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore, said he doesn’t expect services to be launched in the city state until 2021. He believes the business models and use cases are far from clear.

With China operators now holding licences, there could be growing pressure for operators in Singapore not to get left behind and push the timetable forward.

Vietnam, which just started to move to LTE in early 2017, also has ambitious 5G aspirations, as do Globe Telecom and Smart Communications in the Philippines.

With handset availability gradually increasing and prices sure to drop quickly, it will be interesting to see what countries jump on the next wave and which ones wait.

Perhaps Docomo and KDDI will lay out a clearer path on the business case for those who follow.