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2 August, 2021updated 12 Oct 2021 05:04

The Tokyo Olympics are a 5G tragedy

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 undermined the 5G roll-out, not just for Japan but the world as a whole.

By Giacomo Lee

tokyo-olympics-5g

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics was spectacular, but the event served as a reminder of how the roll out of 5G has been a damp whimper. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“Without any doubt or qualification, the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics undermined any type of meaningful or impactful 5G roll-out, not only for Japan but for the rest of the planet,” says Jerry Ray, chief operating officer at cybersecurity company SecureAge.

Due to travel restrictions, Ray has worked for the past year from Singapore, where one of the Reston, Virginia, business’s global offices is located. Usually based at SecureAge’s Tokyo location, the US expat has had to call the city-state home, mirroring the disruption facing Japan’s summer games.

Starting on 24 July, the 32nd Olympiad was originally meant to have been held a year ago until the Covid-19 pandemic intervened – and it wasn’t guaranteed that the event would take place this year, with or without spectators. A compromise was reached with a 10,000 cap on attendees, but this plan was abandoned due to a spike in Covid-19 infections in Japan.

Amid all the news of this uncertainty, it has been overlooked how important the Tokyo Olympics would have been to inaugurate the global introduction of 5G technology.

“The promise and hype of 5G technology between 2017 and 2019 could have only been matched by a globally scaled kick-off, as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics offered,” says Ray.

The Tokyo Olympics tech tragedy

For Ray, almost everyone who paid attention to the Tokyo Olympics would have lived “through a 5G experience without having to have a 5G-enabled device of their own”. In any small group in the world, he says, “at least one member would have been able to explain 5G as it related to real-time graphical or 3D renditions of any particular Olympic event never seen or experienced before”.

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The Olympics would have showcased so much of the visual promise of high-speed data simultaneously to billions of eyes that would have been watching. Jerry Ray, SecureAge

“Rather than tout the capabilities through words or storytelling, the Olympics would have showcased so much of the visual promise of high-speed data simultaneously to billions of eyes that would have been watching,” he adds.

Ray’s mention of Tokyo 2020’s enhanced visuals, with 8K video quality and augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) promised for the games, is just one part of the story. Autonomous vehicles are another part, with Toyota’s e-Palette vehicles ferrying athletes and staff from the Olympic Village to other venues, running on a 5G network.

The power and speed of 5G is also fuelling facial recognition at the games to speed up ID checks, in what is claimed to be an Olympics security first. The software is NeoFace technology from Intel, which is also providing the games’ 5G platform alongside Japan’s NTT DoCoMo.

Security was due to have been augmented by drones and robots checking for any suspicious activity among the crowds, had any been allowed to form. This would have required quick action, not to mention a large bandwidth capacity.

The low network latency of 5G is an obvious asset in this department, and it would have not only maximised the efficiency of drones and drone cars/bots, but also powered digital twins running real-time representations of arenas, and 3D Athlete Tracking to show the positions and speeds of contestants in a more advanced take on the photo finish.

Some of these technologies will still be showcased throughout the games, even if the impact may be diminished by the lack of spectators. Their impact though, as Ray argues, had already been diminished by the gap of time between 5G’s starting pistol and the opening ceremony.

No joy with the 5G toys

“It is tragic for the explosion of 5G awareness that the 2020 Olympics would have offered that the technology and infrastructure could not have similarly been delayed for a kick-off to coincide with the 2021 games,” says Ray.

It is tragic for the explosion of 5G awareness that the 2020 Olympics would have offered that the technology and infrastructure could not have similarly been delayed for a kick-off to coincide with the 2021 games. Jerry Ray

“Investment outlays, manpower, delivery promises and everything else already in motion by the time the decision to postpone came about in April of 2020 meant that 5G would materialise without anyone noticing or appreciating it.”

Beyond disrupting the Tokyo Olympics, Covid has had a bigger impact on 5G beyond a few phone masts vandalised in the name of conspiracy. As GlobalData’s report on 5G states, “social distancing measures… generated temporary interruptions in the roll out of 5G infrastructure.

“The delay of 5G spectrum auctions in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Canada, India, Spain, France and India, originally scheduled for 2020,” it continues, “could have a greater impact on the expansion of mobile 5G in the short and medium-term.”

With no great Olympics showcase, Ray notes that as a result 5G subscriber numbers in Japan have “limped along since the spring of 2020 and remain a small percentage of those expected by NTT, KDDI, Softbank and Rakuten”.

“And that is even after eight to nine months after the tremendous reception of Apple’s 5G-compatible iPhone 12, which has left most of those who upgraded still wondering what 5G actually means for their smartphone experience,” he says. “Right now, that is still not much.”

Ray highlights what he sees as the consumer’s point of view, in whose hands was a 5G device but with “nothing much to tout as a 5G-enabled experience”.

“Every additional day without some meaningful display of that 5G power in their hands has caused them to discount or even scorn the notion of 5G,” he adds. “Having the latest toy without any place or reason to use it will always lead to resentment of the toy.”

Asia’s spluttering 5G start

GlobalData reports that there were 418.8 million mobile 5G subscriptions at the end of 2020, accounting for less than 5% of total mobile subscriptions worldwide.

“Operators have struggled to translate the higher speeds of 5G networks into significant uplifts to revenues,” reads the report. “This may, in part, reflect still patchy network coverage but also the general unwillingness of consumers to pay for higher speeds alone.”

In terms of promised downstream speeds, I am afraid the entire industry is guilty of promoting lab-environment maximums as standard experiences, when real experiences are invariably far more inconsistent. Emma Mohr-McClune, GlobalData

Those consumers who have found themselves paying for higher speeds are not happy. This year has seen hundreds of “disgruntled” 5G users in South Korea band together for a collective lawsuit against the big mobile network operators (MNOs) of LG U+, KT and SK Telecom.

The irony is South Korea is seen as a high-tech country.

“The entire industry looks to South Korea for inspiration for new mobile gaming, rich content communications and AR/VR services that leverage the true potential of 5G’s super low-latency, high-speed promise,” says Emma Mohr-McClune, service director and analyst at GlobalData.

However, while South Korea does have better 5G infiltration than most countries, coverage there still remains poor. The story is the same across Asia, further deflating the hype that the continent has perhaps one foot further into a 5G future than the rest of the world. Many 5G towers in China are only operational for half the day, according to VOA, all down to weak signal meaning exceptionally low consumer usage.

“All new tech comes with its own special set of expectation and teething problems,” says Mohr-McClune. “Indoor signal strength issues certainly aren’t unique to China.

“In terms of promised downstream speeds, I am afraid the entire industry is guilty of promoting lab-environment maximums as standard experiences, when real experiences are invariably far more inconsistent, subject to a host of condition, device and location factors which are beyond the standard MNO’s ability to control.

“It might be 5G, but it is still ‘best effort’. There are no guarantees, at least not in the mass market. That little fact rarely gets marketed properly, however.”

A silver lining for the Tokyo Olympics

It is not all doom and gloom on the 5G front, however. Covid may have kept him from returning to Japan, but Ray believes it may have given Tokyo a good chance for at least a silver medal when it comes to city cybersafety.

“Perhaps the only winner in this slow roll out forced by the pandemic has been the security of all things 5G,” says Ray. “Where the build up to the 2020 Olympic Games captured the imaginations and investments of those creating content to deliver of 5G throughout all of the sporting events, far fewer thoughts and dollars were spent on the notion of securing devices and data streams.

Perhaps the only winner in this slow roll out forced by the pandemic has been the security of all things 5G. Jerry Ray

“While the general public and non-technical enterprise space in Japan remain confounded and confused by the utility and merits of 5G, malicious actors who have been looking forward to a broad attack surface filled with previously unexplored vulnerabilities know precisely what 5G can deliver and, more importantly, how it is delivered.”

Ray is echoing the GlobalData view of 5G being an example of “immature technologies” that are like catnip to cyberattackers, meaning, as its analysts write: “5G communications, smart cities and the internet of things are all at risk.”

In Ray’s view, the slow roll out has “dampened” attackers’ plans and, in some cases, caused investments in their malevolent causes and enterprises to dry up while waiting for those numbers of subscribers and 5G-connected devices to materialise.

“The time since has delayed attacks on those insecure components while at the same time giving security experts time to sound off and develop solutions before the problems emerge, as opposed to the after-the-fact security practices of the past,” he says.

5G has always been about speed – the speed of connectivity and data delivery – but in Ray’s view, hardware, software and infrastructure providers involved with the technology “seemed to feel a need to match that speed with their own development and roll-out cycles”.

“Device makers and 5G infrastructure providers have been able to more cautiously deliberate the implications of their products and services from a broad security perspective,” he says. “Maybe slowing these down was just what was needed to more cautiously contemplate and deliver a safe and speedy 5G experience over time.”

Find the GlobalData 5G    Thematic Research report here.

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