“[5G] will have applications in areas like transport, healthcare, tourism, security and education”

First to 5G

The race to deliver the next generation network

Text by Justin McCurry

One numeral. One letter. But combined, they stand for a revolution in wireless communication, lavishing smartphones with high-speed connections and changing the way we watch, listen and interact on the go.

But fifth-generation mobile technology — or simply 5G — is about more than personal entertainment. The advent of the Internet of Things has tech companies, telecommunications carriers and governments dreaming of uses for 5G in a range of fields, including commerce, manufacturing and the service industry.

Trials are under way in the US, Europe, China and South Korea, but the world’s eyes will be on Japan when 5G as a commercial concern is introduced ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics — a time when years of investment, R&D and planning will come together to usher in a transformation in wireless connectivity.

However, Japan is not attempting to lead the world into the 5G era alone. Nokia of Finland and the Swedish firm Ericsson are working closely with domestic mobile telecommunications carriers, tech companies and government bodies to build the communications infrastructure needed to ensure a seamless path to the 2020 deadline.

“The Tokyo Olympics are coming at the perfect time for Japan to show itself as a global standard base for 5G,” says Brian Cho, Nokia’s head of technology for the Asia-Pacific and Japan. “Fifth-generation technology is firmly on the national agenda, because it is so closely linked to the Olympics, which will be an opportunity for Japan to show off. The government has shown a great interest and is working alongside industry.”

The dramatic rise in transmission capacity will enable people to view sports on smartphones in a way that would simply not be possible without 5G. Instead of watching football, for example, from a single angle, users will have access to 360-degree views of the action via images from dozens of cameras inside the stadium.

Having the right infrastructure in place is, therefore, critical to 5G’s success, explains Masanobu Fujioka, chief technology officer at Ericsson Japan, which has been working with NTT DOCOMO and Intel to build a 5G trial environment.

“To enjoy 5G, smartphone users need consistent access to applications, so we have to deliver 100 megabits per second anywhere for that to happen — even deep inside building basements. It’s all about high reliability and low latency,” he says, referring to the delay that can occur between two networked points.

So, what exactly is 5G and how does it differ from its predecessor?

The data suggests it will more than match the transformation that 4G brought to mobile data transmission several years ago. 5G will be able to send 10 times more data per second than is currently possible with 4G, or Long-Term Evolution (LTE) Advanced, the most commonly used network in Japan. In practical terms, that means you will be able to download a movie onto your smartphone in just seconds.

The same super-fast transmission speeds will accelerate the connectivity to devices — from household appliances to automobiles and industrial robots.

Cho of Nokia believes the advent of 5G will prove a watershed in the democratisation of mobile communication. First-generation devices — think of the enormous bricks London financial whizz kids took calls on in the late 1980s — were for the wealthy, he notes. Then 2G emerged to give everyone a voice, with 3G bringing limited data options to those who could afford it. But it was 4G that brought the data revolution to everyone in the form of smartphones and high-speed Wi-Fi.

“The 5G technology has two important aspects,“ Cho adds. “It will not only enhance the experience for individual customers, but it will have applications in areas like transport, healthcare, tourism, security and education. The big difference is that industry players are involved.”

Japanese firms Honda and SoftBank recently unveiled a joint research project to develop internet-connected cars that inform drivers about traffic conditions and accidents ahead. Starting next year, the telecom firm will install 5G base stations at the automaker’s test course in Hokkaido.

And in May, NTT DOCOMO and Tobu, a private railway company, began trials of ultra high-definition 8K video at Tokyo Skytree.

Industrial applications aside, 5G’s development is being pushed forward by the desire for uninterrupted access to entertainment among smartphone users.

“People are continuously consuming more data, so at the very least, we need to be able to provide video services on flat-screen TVs that are of sufficiently high quality,” Cho says. “With more video comes the need for more capacity. For example, virtual reality streaming without compression uses an enormous amount of data … these services can’t be supported with current capacities of, say, one gigabit-per-second speed.”

Aside from facilitating new ways to view sport, the Olympics should prove a useful testing ground for 5G’s application in the security field, according to Yoshio Honda, general manager for standardisation and regulation at Ericsson Japan.

“It will be feasible for a security firm to use 5G technology to monitor crowds at an Olympic event,” he said. “That would facilitate a much quicker response to an incident, or even a potential one.”

The road to 5G is not without bumps, however. Japan will have to resolve issues surrounding technical compatibility stemming from its move to a new frequency band, something agreed on by the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency responsible for issues relating to information and communication technologies.

The US has been particularly aggressive in developing 5G, along with Japan, South Korea — arguably the most wired nation on earth — and China, where commercial services will also be introduced on a huge scale in 2020. Confidence is high in Japan, however, with the communications ministry vowing that the 2020 rollout will put Japan “ahead of other countries”.

Whether it can deliver on that promise remains to be seen. What is certain is that preparations for the Olympics over the next two years should put Japan at the head of the 5G pack.

“The leap that 5G will bring to our society is going to be even more revolutionary than what we experienced after the advent of 1G, 2G, 3G or even 4G,” said Akira Matsunaga, a senior director at KDDI’s R&D Strategy Division, as reported earlier this year by The Japan Times.

“We believe 5G will indeed become the foundation of our future society.” 

you will be able to download a movie onto your smartphone in just seconds