Japan is starting to close the gap with global 5G leaders

Japan is still at an early stage in its 5G deployment and this is reflected in how the 5G experience compares globally. However, many of the leading 5G countries launched 5G much earlier than Japan’s operators (April 2020) and so have more mature 5G networks. For example, South Korea and the US launched 5G a full year earlier than three of Japan’s operators and 18 months ahead of Rakuten with their 5G launch in April 2019. Even a number of European countries were, unusually, a long way ahead of Japan with operators in the UK, Germany and Switzerland also all launching in 2019.

When we compare Japan’s mobile experience globally we can see the impact of this later start. While Japan is above average on 5G Peak Download Speed with a score of 574.3 Mbps compared to the average of 528.4 Mbps across 30 leading 5G countries, it is slightly below the average on 5G Download Speed (160 Mbps versus 181.5 Mbps) but is further behind on  5G Upload Speed (11.2 Mbps vs 23.6 Mbps). However, in every measure of mobile experience we see that 5G is superior to 4G which indicates the importance of 5G to improving the mobile experience in Japan.

Japan’s operators need to be able to fund investment in 5G to ensure Japan’s 5G experience improves and in future matches Japan’s strong international position on its 4G experience. But pressure to reduce mobile prices in Japan risks operators delaying the needed investment to move Japan from a 5G participant to become a 5G global leader. 

But since the start of 2021, Japan’s mobile operators have been accelerating their 5G roll out. SoftBank aims to deploy over 50,000 5G base stations and is targeting 90% population coverage by the end of March 2022. Likewise KDDI au also aims to boost from just 10,000 base stations in March 2021 to 50,000 a year later. Similarly, NTT DoCoMo is expanding its 5G network during 2021, and was aiming to reach 10,000 base stations by June, rising to 20,000 by end of March 2022 with 55% population coverage using new high speed 5G spectrum.

In Opensignal’s data we can already see the impact of these 5G deployment plans with the increase in the extent of 5G service starting to accelerate from early 2021. 5G Reach represents the share of locations on a 10 point scale and has more than doubled in just five months rising from 0.6 in at the start of 2021 compared with 1.6 five months later in the 90 day period starting on May 1. The proportion of time our Japanese users had an active 5G connection has also increased from 1.2% to 2.7% across the same time period.

Despite the late launch of 5G in Japan and limited coverage to date the Japan 5G experience is not a long way behind other 5G countries. In 5G Video Experience the difference is just 2.6% between Japan and the average of 30 leading 5G countries, 8% for 5G Games Experience and is almost the same on 5G Voice App Experience with just 0.9% difference.

The investments that Japan’s operators are making in 5G now are essential to improve the mobile experience in Japan. Opensignal data shows that they are already having an impact on the extent of 5G service in Japan.