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MIC approves allocation of 5G spectrum to Japanese operators, with conditions

11 Apr 2019

An advisory panel to the communications minister approved Wednesday (10 April) the allocation of frequency bands for fifth-generation (5G) advanced wireless communications services to the four mobile carriers that made applications, namely: NTT DOCOMO, KDDI (au), Softbank Corp, and new fourth operator Rakuten Mobile, part of local e-commerce giant Rakuten. Announcing its decision, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) confirmed that the operators’ applications all met the conditions of the allocation, although with the government wanting to see the industry to build out 5G infrastructure widely – from big metropolitan areas to rural regions – the ministry has attached a number of conditions to the awards. Importantly, the approvals include the stipulation that all four telcos launch 5G services using the new spectrum in every Japanese prefecture within two years, and effectively sub-divided Japan into 4,500 ‘blocks’ (zones), requiring all four spectrum holders to set up base transceiver stations (BTS) in at least half of these within five years. Preliminary information suggests that NTT DOCOMO and KDDI have committed to reaching >90% coverage by that date, while Softbank and Rakuten Mobile have set more conservative targets of 64% and 56%, respectively.

The MIC also published on the ministry website its approvals relating to 5G BTS deployments for all four companies. Based on a report from the Radio Frequency Control Council, 5G frequency authorisations are as follows:

NTT DOCOMO: 3.6GHz-3.7GHz, 4.5GHz-4.6GHz and 27.4GHz-27.8GHz

KDDI: 3.7GHz-3.8GHz, 4.0GHz-4.1GHz and 27.8GHz-28.2GHz

Softbank: 3.9GHz-4.0GHz and 29.1GHz-29.5GHz

Rakuten Mobile: 3.8GHz-3.9GHz and 27.0GHz-27.4GHz.

The MIC’s conditions will likely require the four MNOs to balance sizeable investment programmes against the need to remain profitable, and with new competition looming in the shape of Rakuten Mobile – which is set to kick off its fledgling 4G network this October, targeting 15 million subscribers in the medium-term – price competition is expected to intensify.

All four firms aim to commercialise 5G services in 2020, with KDDI and Softbank pencilling in launches in March and Rakuten in June 2020, and taken together the big four will invest JPY1.6 trillion (USD14.4 billion) in the five-year deployment phase, of which at least JPY795 billion is being spent by DOCOMO, JPY466 billion from KDDI, JPY206 billion (Softbank) and JPY194 billion (Rakuten).

Some press agencies meanwhile note that the MIC’s T&Cs conditions also include measures that effectively prevent carriers from using equipment supplied by Chinese vendors. The communications ministry, which last year implemented a de facto ban on using network equipment from the likes of Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp, states that it has taken ‘sufficient cybersecurity measures including responding to supply chain risk’.

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