• By Joy Santamarina

The 5G era is here

“My claims were bold, but well, we actually delivered.” With these words, Roderick Boss, Docomo Pacific’s president and CEO, and I started our conversation about their 5G launch in Guam and in the Marianas, a first for the region.

It is quite a feat for Docomo Pacific to launch a new network at a time when mobility of people is challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, he mentioned that they had to go through several challenges in order to finally make the services available to their customers.

First, there was the technical aspect of deploying a new network at this time. Docomo Pacific worked with its parent company, NTT DoCoMo, as well as with partners, like Nokia for the network and device manufacturers like Samsung, in order to ensure that the service could be enjoyed by its subscribers.

This region being a predominantly Samsung or iPhone device market, it was crucial that they launched with at least one of these brands. Right now, customers can enjoy the 5G experience using the following available devices: LGV50, Samsung Galaxy S20, S20+, S20 Ultra, and soon the Samsung Galaxy Note 20. While there is no official release date yet for the 5G-capable iPhone 12, some sectors are predicting its launch towards the last quarter of the year.

Whom to partner with is quite critical in these deployments as the U.S. government continues its Clean Network program – a comprehensive approach to safeguarding assets around the world. Recently, the approach has expanded to not just include Clean Carrier, which prohibits untrusted network equipment providers from providing their services in the U.S., but also Clean Apps, Stores, Cloud and Cable. Docomo is confident though that they remain completely compliant and have this as a foremost consideration in their selection of partners and vendors.

Second, the business model and revenue path are not yet as clear. “What do you need these super high speeds for? Everybody wants a lot more data for a lot less money,” he said. Truly, that has been the story from 3G to 4G to 4GLTE and now to 5G in most markets worldwide. As speeds increased, people consumed more data with seemingly insatiable delight but paying relatively the same amounts.

This is where Docomo Pacific’s 5G test lab on Guam plays a key part as it partners with developers to create real life applications of the technology. Some of its local partners include the University of Guam in developing a security app with facial recognition services; Guam Power Authority for training; and a local virtual reality wedding company. These and many others can potentially spell the difference in terms of offering 5G-specific services that can be monetized and will truly be beneficial to the customers.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the push for virtual reality services may come sooner, rather than later. Imagine attending a wedding on Guam while you are physically in Japan. Think of a virtual classroom experience for Guam students, even if they’re safely at home, complete with interactions with their teachers and classmates, and not just passively watching a lecture or reading a lesson. These types of applications will determine how fast the expansion of Docomo’s initial limited deployment will be.

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In the near term, Docomo’s fixed 5G services, which offer high-speed internet without need for a fiber line, can benefit many businesses. This service has been available since October 2019 in Tamuning, Hagatna and portions of Mangilao. “That to me is something that is very practical that you will see more and more of right away,” Boss said.

For Saipan, with its undersea cable already laid out, 5G is also a coming reality. “Even though, I think realistically there was no great business case to build our own independent cable out there, I think it was the best (move) absolutely for CNMI,” he said. The move brought increased competition in the CNMI. “We have the fastest internet speeds anywhere in the Marianas, and when people try it and realize what they could be getting. So we have just seen that growing incredibly,” he added. In fact, it is the idea of more competition that drives the company to always try to do better.

Third, Docomo’s business, like many others, had to contend with issues related to the pandemic. With the travel industry practically grinding to a halt worldwide, the company’s roaming revenues took a big hit. However, internet use and demand rose tremendously. When the pandemic hit, Docomo immediately switched to a completely virtual company with 100 percent of employees working from home, including their call center agents.

Currently, even when things are starting to open up, roughly 80 percent of their employees remain working from home.

However, these challenges did not stop Docomo from pursuing its goals, as evidenced by their 5G launch. “Even in the midst of all that disruption, the fact is that we continue to innovate and continue to do all of these things.

I’m really proud of our people,” he said.

The other big realization for him is that telecommunications has gone from just being a service people enjoyed into being part of the utility industry; something that people need like water and power. He emphasized that, “our people are front liners and that we are providing really a vital service to keep the economy going, to keep people connected.”

So what else can the people of Guam and the Marianas expect from Docomo? The president/CEO suddenly turned a bit reserved but said, “without giving too much away, there’s some really, really cool, new entertainment offers that we’re working on as well.”

With that, it seems that Guam and the Marianas are in for more than just having 5G speeds. It looks like something even bigger will be up soon, perhaps later in the year.

Joy Santamarina is a consulting principal in the APAC region specializing in the telecommunications, media, and technology industry. Send feedback to joysantamarina@gmail.com

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