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Although Japanese carriers originally planned to roll out 5G networks and services to coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in July, trade wars and accelerated global 5G launches created some uncertainty around the scope and timing of Japan’s commercial 5G launch. This week, as the Olympics themselves face a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan’s top carriers are kicking off 5G service without the guarantee of a summertime promotional push.

Today, carrier KDDI announced that it will offer “au 5G”-branded service in parts of 15 Japanese prefectures starting on Thursday, March 26, notably with unlimited data at the same price point as prior 4G service — 8,480 yen (~$77) per month, or 3,460 yen (~$31) after various early adopter discounts. The carrier says it will service major cities in all 47 prefectures by summer, expand to 10,000 5G base stations by March 2021, and offer 20,000 stations by March 2022.

Japan’s importance within the global market for smartphones has waned with the ascendance of South Korean brands such as Samsung and LG, to say nothing of China’s Huawei, Xiaomi, and ZTE. However, Japanese companies continue to compete for market share, with Sharp offering an Aquos model for KDDI’s launch and Sony planning an Xperia phone for May. Samsung’s Galaxy S20 5G will be the carrier’s first phone, however, with Oppo, Xiaomi, and ZTE phones following in July.

Apart from phones, KDDI has been working on ambitious plans to roll out 5G-powered augmented reality experiences within Japanese society. Its service notably includes access to a Ghost in the Shell AR walk in Shibuya, as well as select sports, comedy, and stage performances with AR components around Tokyo. The carrier is also working with Nreal to deploy its Light AR glasses for use with Android phones, including “holographic” collaborative work and social experiences using the Spatial app.


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Rival NTT Docomo will launch commercial 5G service across 29 prefectures on Wednesday, one day ahead of KDDI, with a 7,650 yen (~$69) plan that promises 100GB of data per month, though that cap will not initially be firm. Softbank will start with a smaller seven-prefecture 5G launch on Friday and plans to ask for 1,000 yen (~$9) as a 5G surcharge, but it will waive that fee for two years if customers sign up before the end of August.

It remains to be seen whether the Japanese launches will benefit from long-planned promotional opportunities at the Tokyo Olympics. Despite their initial reluctance to postpone or cancel the massive sporting event due to the coronavirus pandemic, officials are reportedly contemplating delays that could push the Olympics into 2021, as countries such as Australia and Canada have withdrawn their athletes from competition. The event was planned to be a global showcase for both 5G cellular and 8K video technologies, as well as related Japanese technologies, such as high-definition cameras and displays.

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