SoftBank launched its 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) service in Japan using devices based on Qualcomm Snapdragon 5G Mobile Platforms and Modem-RF Systems.

At launch, SoftBank is selling the “Pocket WiFi 5G A004ZT” 5G mmWave mobile hotspot. Other 28 GHz devices have yet to be announced, but according to Qualcomm, all of the initial 5G mmWave-compatible mobile devices in SoftBank’s line-up, including 5G smartphones, will be powered by Qualcomm Technologies’ 5G mmWave products.

“SoftBank is pleased to collaborate with Qualcomm Technologies and use its leading 5G mmWave technology to offer world-class 5G service to our subscribers,” said Keigo Sugano, senior vice president, head of product division, SoftBank Corp., in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our long-standing collaboration with Qualcomm Technologies to support Japan’s growth and leadership using the most advanced wireless innovations.”

According to Qualcomm, 5G mmWave is a cost-effective way for mobile operators to increase the capacity needed to meet the demand for data in dense urban, fixed wireless access (FWA) and enterprise environments, with savings up to 35% in total cost of ownership compared to just using sub-6 GHz bands.

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SoftBank is joining other Japanese operators – KDDI, NTT DoCoMo and Rakuten – in deploying mmWave for 5G on a commercial basis. SoftBank launched its 5G service last year using sub-6 GHz spectrum.

mmWave grows despite cynics

The launch in Japan signifies that mmWave is growing, even as mid-band spectrum makes headlines in the U.S., where the recent C-band auction fetched more than $81 billion in gross proceeds. Verizon, which has been the most active in mmWave of all the U.S. carriers, spent more than $45 billion on C-band spectrum.

Verizon needs that spectrum to catch up to T-Mobile in its 5G deployment, but it’s still proceeding with more mmWave launches, with plans to bring its total mmWave sites online to over 30,000 sites this year. The company expects at least 5% of its overall network usage will be on mmWave by the end of 2021, and that could increase to as much as 10%, depending on Covid and how quickly people return to stadiums and other venues.

“Over the next few years, we see a path for as much as 50% of our urban usage moving to mmWave in some of our densest markets, and our build plans target this footprint,” Verizon CTO Kyle Malady said during the company’s March 10 investor meeting.

While 5G requires all types of spectrum – low-band, mid-band and high-end mmWave – it’s the combination of mid-band coverage and mmWave capacity that really makes a difference, according to Ignacio Contreras, senior director of 5G marketing at Qualcomm. “We see both mmWave and C-band being very complementary,” he told Fierce.

Investment analysts have been particularly harsh on Verizon for its mmWave strategy, pointing out that its propagation characteristics are terrible and it’s expensive to roll out. But the sheer amount of spectrum that’s available at the higher frequencies is hard to ignore, at 400 MHz and 800 MHz compared to the 280 MHz that was made available in the 3.7-3.98 GHz C-band.

mmWave was never intended as a coverage technology. “It’s not built for that,” Contreras said, noting the benefits of mmWave might be hard to see now during the pandemic when people are avoiding stadiums and transportation hubs, but those are the types of venues that benefit the most.

Contreras recently visited Qualcomm’s campus in San Diego, where he tested the mmWave service, and he was able to get close to 4 Gbps on a commercial phone. But while the speeds are impressive, it’s the capacity advantage that mmWave offers that really matters for operators, he said.

What about the cost of adding mmWave to phones; isn’t it more expensive? With Apple’s launch of the iPhone 12 last fall, all the major OEMs include mmWave bands in their handsets, and they’re launching around the same price points as phones without mmWave support. “It’s not determining what the consumer pays for the device,” he said.

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