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Asia’s powerhouses aim for 5G at upcoming Winter and Summer Olympics

The 5G race in Asia is underway, with the region’s powerhouses, Japan and South Korea, going head-to-head. Both countries have major international sports showcases coming up, giving local telcos the chance to flex their muscles. South Korean providers are working towards early deployment of 5G for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018; while Japanese providers have the opportunity to showcase full-fledged 5G at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.  

The Olympic Games have long played host to some of the world’s most innovative technology showcases. From the first electronic stopwatches at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, to the live television broadcasts at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and instant video replay at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 – host cities strive to show the world what they’re made of. This time, the spotlight is on Japan and South Korea to showcase 5G technology.

Commercialization of 5G is not expected to start before 2020, as governments, companies and standardization groups negotiate and try to standardize norms between different countries for a smooth 5G transition. The timeline would appear to give Japan an advantage over South Korea to provide 5G for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, South Korea shows no sign of giving up on its 5G ambitions, as it aims to showcase pre-standard 5G for the Winter Olympic Games.

“The PyeongChang Winter Olympics will become the world’s first 5G Olympics utilizing the IoT [Internet of Things] and UHD. We are aiming to make use of the technology for the sake of people’s convenience and memory above anything else,” said Lee Hee-beom, president and CEO of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympics Winter Games, in a recent interview with Business Korea.

“5G test networks are to be established in the venues, the Seoul Incheon International Airport, downtown in Seoul and so on,” Lee added. “The networks will provide extremely realistic media services and content based on hologram, virtual reality, etc.”

2018 Winter Olympics to provide immersive experiences’

South Korean mobile operator Korea Telecom (KT) says it wants to give spectators at the 2018 Winter Olympics what it hopes will be their first 5G experience, regardless of whether 5G has been commercially deployed. South Korea plans to use the Winter Olympics in February 2018 to test 5G on the hundreds of thousands of spectators, providing them with access to very high definition content or virtual reality.

KT chief executive Chang-Gyu Hwang has promised that 5G will bring “dramatic changes.” A KT spokesperson at Mobile World Congress this year said: “KT will introduce brand new services that have not ever been possible with the radio technologies of the current generations.”

The current 4G standard enables fast broadband access via smartphones, but governments and manufacturers foresee the next generation enabling connection speeds of up to 1,000 times faster than what’s currently available. Dexter Thillien, an analyst at IBM Research, says operators are “looking to 5G as a differentiator, especially in markets where LTE (4G) is ubiquitous” such as South Korea.

5G at the Winter Olympics in South Korea will be “pre-standards 5G” says Thillien. “The Olympic launch is more a marketing ploy to say they were the first.” The main obstacle the country faces when introducing 5G before standards have been finalized, is that the frequencies used might not, in the end, be used at a global level. “We know for example that the spectrum of frequencies that will be used in South Korea is not available in Europe, but will be in the United States,” says Thillien.

In June 2016, KT confirmed its intention to deploy 5G technology at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Speaking at Mobile World Congress Shanghai last year, Dongmyun Lee, EVP at KT, said some of the services to expect through 5G will include a drone equipped with a video camera. Lee said viewers will be able to experience the Games from the athlete’s point-of-view thanks to 5G.

A 5G proof of concept was completed by KT and NEC in April last year for 5G wireless backhaul solutions utilizing spectrum in the 70GHz and 80GHz bands. The trial was conducted at Phoenix Park Ski World in PyeongChang, using KT’s commercial mobile network infrastructure.

The operator has been collaborating with vendors such as ZTE and Ericsson for the development of 5G. The carrier currently offers LTE services using spectrum in the 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2.1 GHz bands, having initially launched LTE services in January 2012.

Most recently, at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, KT’s chief executive presented the PyeongChang 5G Specifications based on a 5G End-to-End Network. This was the first time a perfect 5G mobile network interlocked with 5G terminals, base stations, and core devices was presented.

"5G End-to-End Network," jointly developed by KT and Samsung Electronics, is wirelessly connected to base stations and terminals and interlocked with core network equipment that act as the control tower. It performs all key functions, such as customer authentication, mobility, and linkage with external networks, required for providing customers with 5G services.

In addition, KT applied "5G distributed architecture" to the 5G End-to-End Network in order to improve the efficiency of the existing network architecture (4G, LTE), which handles all data traffic at the network center.

'5G distributed architecture' can virtualize core networks to handle data traffic and allocate them to any desired area. As data transmission starts at the nearest location to a customer, even high-capacity media which cannot be handled by 4G (LTE) networks can be transmitted smoothly with low latency.

KT predicts that '5G distributed architecture' could stably commercialize 5G-based services such as connected cars that deliver traffic information with low latency, remote medical service systems that require real-time control, and smart factories.

Chief Manager at KT Infra R&D Center, Hong Beom Jeon said: "KT will complete 5G trial service networks in the second half of the year based on the 5G End-to-End Network that contains core devices. We will provide spectators with entirely new 5G service experiences such as Sync View, 360° VR, and omni-view, etc.”

KT’s rival in South Korea, SK Telecom, says it will also offer immersive experiences at the 2018 Winter Olympics such as the possibility to see live holograms of the athletes as well as so-called omni-view camera angles through which viewers can choose to watch an event from multiple points-of-view. 

SK Telecom’s ‘5G White Paper’ says the Korean government has set up the Creative 5G Mobile Strategy, under which it presented SNS, mobile stereoscopic image, intelligent service, ultra-high-speed service and UHD/hologram as the five core services.

South Korea, China, Japan and the EU have started to establish a special organization to define the 5G concept and share views on 5G networks and the services around it. Initial discussions are ongoing, according to SK Telecom’s report, focused on innovation of mobile telecommunication technology to deliver Gigabit data rate and the potential 5G services that can reflect people’s lifestyles in 2020, the year the industry is aiming to commercialize the technology.

In an effort to meet the requirements of the evolution to 5G from in and out of the country, SK Telecom has conducted its own research on 5G networks from 2013 and is actively participating in global 5G discussions. One of the company’s most significant achievements was in February this year, when it announced it had successfully tested its 5G network on a connected car running at 170 kilometers per hour, reaching 3.6Gbps data transfer speeds, the highest for a 28GHz-based 5G pilot network.

SK Telecom worked with Ericsson and BMW to achieve the speed at the German vehicle manufacturer’s driving center in Incheon city, west of South Korea’s capital Seoul. The operator also announced plans with Ericsson and Qualcomm to conduct interoperability testing and over-the-air field trials based on 5G New Radio (NR) standards that are being developed in 3GPP.

The trials are intended to closely track and push to accelerate the first 3GPP 5G NR specification that will be part of Release 15. The companies say the trials will showcase new 5G NR technologies that use wide bandwidths in the higher frequency bands to increase network capacity and achieve multi-gigabit-per-second data rates. Such technologies are said to be critical in meeting the connectivity requirements for things like virtual reality, augmented reality and connected cloud services.

Commercial 5G deployment at 2020 Summer Olympics

Ericsson has also been working closely with Japanese telecoms corporation SoftBank to conduct 5G trials in Japan. Telecom operators in Japan are working aggressively to showcase commercial 5G in time for the Summer Olympics in 2020. Ericsson and SoftBank announced plans for a 28GHz trial in Tokyo that will involve indoor and outdoor environments, covering both device and mobility stationary tests.

SoftBank’s trial with Ericsson will use the vendor’s mmWave (millimeter wave) 28GHz 5G Test Bed solution, which includes base stations and device prototypes and will showcase advanced 5G technologies such as Massive-MIMO (multiple input, multiple output), Massive Beamforming, Distributed MIMO, Multiuser MIMO and Beam Tracking. Also part of the mix will be multi-gigabit data rates and ultra-low latency.

"SoftBank started to verify 4.5 GHz radio back in August 2016 and now 4.5 GHz is becoming the leading candidate band for 5G services in Japan together with 28 GHz,” says Hideyuki Tsukuda, senior vice president at SoftBank. “We are leveraging Ericsson's Test Bed with 28 GHz radio to validate a lot of advanced features at super low-latency and high throughput, which helps position us as a pioneer of 5G.”

Mikael Eriksson, head of Ericsson Japan, said he is “confident that we will be the first to deliver 5G services and that we will deliver the best performing end to end network in Japan.”

SoftBank is competing head-to-head with NTT DoCoMo, the predominant mobile phone operator in Japan. Last November, the operator announced it had completed a 5G trial with Samsung Electronics that achieved a data speed of more than 2.5Gbps with a mobile device that was in a vehicle traveling 150 km/h, which proved the feasibility of connectivity for 5G devices in fast moving trains. The transmissions were conducted using the 28GHz band.

In early May this year, NTT DoCoMo announced its new medium-term 5G strategy for implementation through the 2020 fiscal year, effective immediately. The plan focuses on six declarations that DoCoMo will act upon to realize a more innovative business structure in the coming era of 5G.

The underlying objectives of the "Declaration beyond" plan are 1) to “exceed the expectations of customers and help them connect with their aspirations via exciting and unexpected services” and 2) to “create all-new value propositions in collaboration with business partners as DOCOMO challenges new frontiers with an eye to 2020 and beyond.”

Despite the major advances made in the design and evolution of 4G cellular networks in Japan, NTT DoCoMo says new market trends are “imposing unprecedentedly challenging requirements” which are driving the company to the “necessity of a 5G mobile network.”

The high-level targets of the company’s 5G strategy, according to the ‘DOCOMO 5G White Paper’, include higher system capacity, reduced latency, higher data rate, massive device connectivity (IoT), as well as energy saving and cost reduction.

Japan’s mobile operators are working tirelessly to develop 5G wireless technology to cater for an estimated half a million visitors to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Estimations suggest that this could increase network capacity from anywhere between 100 to 1000 fold.

“The Olympic Games is a sports festival, but also it’s a chance to show the innovation of scientific technologies,” said Tokyo’s organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto. “We have the potential to make this Olympic Games wonderful [and one] that the people of the world are going to admire.”