Mobile carriers in South Korea, the U.S. and the U.K. have been kicking off fifth-generation cellular network technology (5G) services over the past year, and the pace is ramping up as more cities go 5G-live. With Japan slated to begin 5G trials in fall 2019 and commercial service in spring 2020, expectations are high that 5G will be a game-changer for mobile and beyond. At the recent New Economy Summit (NEST) in Tokyo, experts discussed the potential impact and challenges associated with this new era in mobile communications.

5G is expected to deliver speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second ⁠— which could be up to 100 times faster than existing 4G service ⁠— and latency of only 1 millisecond or less. What will it be like to use that kind of lightning-fast connection?

Unlocking the potential of 5G

Tsutsumu Ishikawa, a journalist following the mobile industry, served as moderator at a NEST session on the impact of 5G and offered his firsthand experience. He presented a video comparing download times on 5G and 4G smartphones in Chicago. With the 5G phone, he was able to download eight episodes of the show “Veep” in 1 minute, 4 seconds, noting it was about 10 times faster than the 4G handset.

“5G is very fast but that’s just the beginning,” said Ishikawa. “How enterprises will use it going forward is the key.” 

Panelists at the session agreed that in addition to the acceleration factor, 5G is expected to become a key piece of infrastructure in the spread of technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), self-driving vehicles and telemedicine ⁠— including remote surgery.

Panelist Amir Segev is cofounder and CEO of TEXEL, a platform development company based in New York and Tel Aviv that specializes in video-on-demand services. Its products allow users to stream multiple camera feeds from live events such as pro sports matches to provide immersive, 360-degree viewing. That’s one way 5G networks can give sports fans a whole new experience.

“The entire production workflow for live events is about to be reshaped using 5G,” said Segev, previously the founder and CEO of video advertising firm Artimedia. “Compared to previous generations, 5G has the potential to become a revolution rather than evolution. It’s about to reshape VR, AR and the way we consume.”

Getting the fundamentals right

Segev believes that in order to maximize their potential, 5G networks must have some essential features: widespread coverage, homogeneity and the use of edge computing. The latter will be a key part of the Rakuten Mobile network, which is currently being rolled out in Japan to become the world’s first end-to-end cloud-native mobile network. Rakuten Mobile will exist on a private cloud based in two main data centers in addition to thousands of edge data centers incorporating Rakuten’s xEdge architecture. It will be ready for 5G from day one.

“Consumers will benefit from 5G, but enterprises will benefit more,” explained Tareq Amin, chief technology officer at Rakuten Mobile, and also a panelist for the NEST session. “When I look at the level of innovation you could drive with 5G, it is absolutely revolutionary. What you could do in a factory to automate machinery and sensor networks is something remarkable that a 4G network could never do.”

Future mobile devices will come with 5G connectivity, and it will be like having wireless fiber optics everywhere with unlimited data, said Amin. Edge computing, meanwhile, will allow AR, VR and massive online gaming experiences to live up to their full potential, he added. Many 5G applications, however, remain undiscovered and will be developed by companies wanting to provide new services for their customers.

“Rakuten Mobile would love to be the platform provider, and innovate and offer flexible APIs to create an ecosystem from which many new companies could emerge in Japan,” Amin said. “With mobility, I think you will drive better efficiency and productivity regardless of the business or industry segment you’re in.”

A “third kaikoku” for Japan

Some of the most ambitious predictions for 5G, however, came from Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani, who presented the opening remarks at NEST 2019 under the theme of Japan’s “third kaikoku,” or opening of the country to the outside world. He called for the creation of a smart economy to overcome Japan’s declining population and for Tokyo to become the next Silicon Valley, driven by innovation and startup companies.

At the center of this vision lies connectivity, 5G networks, big data and artificial intelligence. “The human brain and true AI have several differences. There are many streams of thought about this, but a key aspect is how they glean insights from data,” said Mikitani. “Migrating from 4G to 5G, data will increase in a drastic way and automation will become rapidly available.”