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Japan’s plan to launch commercial 5G services in 2020 devolved from ambitious to laggard when carriers in the U.S., South Korea, China, and Europe moved up their 5G launch dates, but until now there wasn’t much question of Japan achieving its goal. Unfortunately, company officials are now warning that a trade conflict between Japan and key 5G device supplier South Korea could starve the island nation of the hardware needed for its launch.

According to the Korea Times, worsening conflict between the Japanese and South Korean governments is threatening the recently positive relationship between Japanese and South Korean telecom companies, as Japan has removed South Korea from a whitelist of trusted trading partners and South Koreans are contemplating boycotts of both Japanese companies and the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics. The Olympics kick off in late July 2020 and were supposed to be Japan’s showcase for next-generation technologies, including 5G cellular service and 8K video broadcasting.

For Japan, the transition to 5G has been particularly challenging, as once-omnipresent domestic technology companies such as Sony and Sharp have lagged well behind South Korean and Chinese rivals in announcing 5G devices. Consequently, Japan’s largest carrier — NTT Docomo — planned to work with Samsung on its 5G device offerings, and last month it launched a special commemorative Galaxy S10 Plus — notably not the Galaxy S10 5G — to mark their collaboration ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The carrier had previously selected Nokia for its 5G network hardware needs.

“Even if Japanese mobile carriers complete the construction of 5G networks,” an unnamed South Korean telecom official told the Korea Times, “they will not be able to drum up new 5G subscribers without 5G smartphones.” As the report notes, South Korean-made phones such as the S10 5G and LG V50 ThinQ 5G are presently the only 5G phones available globally, while Chinese options from Huawei are rolling out but unlikely to make inroads in Japan due to U.S. security concerns.

A lot could change over the next year: Trade issues could dissipate, 5G hardware from other companies could become available, or Japan could untether its 5G launch plans from the Olympics. One unlikely possibility could see Apple modestly push up its release date for the first 5G iPhones to late July to meet Japan’s needs. Though the company has historically held firm to early September launch dates for its new smartphones, iPhones are particularly popular in Japan, and Apple might be tempted by the opportunity to grab market share that would otherwise go to Samsung or other rivals.

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