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5G internet is poised to underpin and drive the fourth industrial revolution.

Ultra-high speeds, massive bandwidth and low latency delivered by 5G promises to build smarter cities, deliver safer transport, transform entertainment and create new yet to be imagined services.

In Japan, 5G networks are already online in the biggest cities,

but nationwide coverage is still a while away, a similar situation to that found in many other advanced countries.

A complementary development is local 5G: small, private networks that can deliver additional benefits, particularly in remote locations.

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Still in its nascent stages, revenue from local 5G is predicted to grow from $1.6 billion last year to $65 billion by the end of the decade, according to ABI Research.

‘Development Demonstration for Realizing Local 5G for Solving Regional Issues’ carried out by Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) are already underway, aiming to provide solutions in fields including agriculture and healthcare. Aside from early deployment, the advantages of local 5G include higher security derived from being separated from public networks, ultra-low latency, stability and customisability to suit local conditions.

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Japan’s demographic problems of an aging and declining workforce are being felt particularly acutely in agriculture, where the average age of a farmer is now around 68 years old.

Iwamizawa City on Hokkaido, the nation’s most northerly island and a major agricultural centre was chosen for one of the MIC projects, which was run in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

The demonstration in 2020, featuring collaboration with NTT Group and Hokkaido University, involved the remote monitoring and control of smart farm machinery, connected via local 5G, using technology to solve social problems.

"Four robot tractors were successfully controlled remotely by a single operator, including navigating them between rice paddies. As robots can work 24/7, this creates the potential in the future for a new style of agriculture where smart machinery is shared between multiple farmers, and even contracted out to others.”

- Professor Noboru Noguchi, Hokkaido University

Local 5G can help address issues including the shortage of workers in Iwamizawa, and facilitate smart agriculture driven by comprehensive data, suggests Professor Noguchi.

North of Iwamizawa lies Urausu-cho, where another local 5G experiment successfully

deployed four smart electric agricultural machines, also referred to as EV robots, simultaneously for tasks such as spraying pesticides and cutting grass, controlled and monitored from a single location. The project is aiming to operate eight EV robots within the next year.

“Leveraging the high speeds and capacity of local 5G allows high-definition video to be transmitted from the EV robots to the operator, which is necessary to be able to see bugs on the crops, for example,” says Professor Noguchi. The machines also have a reduced environmental impact through being electric and the fact they are built using recycled motors and batteries from the Toyota Prius.

Once 6G networks have been deployed, which is expected by the end of the decade, the even lower latency and higher capacity will facilitate further advancements in automated agricultural technology.

Professor Noguchi envisions a future where Japan’s smart agriculture infrastructure could be transferred to other Asian countries, many of which share similar characteristics such as relatively small fields.

“Japanese farmers could even rent land overseas and operate machinery remotely, and there could be a shift in agricultural products from ‘Made in Japan’ to ‘Made by Japan’,” suggests the professor.

Experiments will continue to be conducted in order to fully leverage the problem-solving potential of local networks as the technology advances towards Beyond 5G.

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“Thanks to the combination of using a 4K endoscopic camera, connected via local 5G and a fibre network, one patient’s oesophageal cancer was detected at a very early stage during a joint consultation with doctors from the remote islands and the mainland,” recalls Dr TSUJINO Akira, deputy director of Nagasaki University Hospital (NUH).

The cancer may have gone undetected until much later were it not for the MIC development demonstration, which has also opened up treatment possibilities in other areas such as dermatology.

Doctors at NUH are utilising local 5G networks, camera-equipped smart glasses and 4K video to connect with patients on some of the dozens of remote, picturesque Goto islands, which are spread across 100km of ocean, without leaving the hospital. There are few medical professionals on the islands, and residents have to travel by sea or air to the mainland for specialist treatment.

“Telemedicine was already being conducted, but there were problems with poor image resolution and time lags,” says Dr NAKAO Kazuhiko, director of NUH. “Using local 5G and fibre networks, our specialists have been able to work remotely with doctors at Goto Central Hospital on the islands to treat patients as if they were in the room together.”

As well as providing consultations to patients, the process was also educational for the young and trainee doctors on the remote islands, who were able to learn from specialists at the university hospital, points out Dr TSUJINO. “It was like an in-person training session or conference with no time lag that they could attend from the island, which is important in terms of keeping junior doctors motivated.”

The university hospital is considering how the range of possible treatments could be expanded by involving more specialist doctors, while Nagasaki prefectural government is looking into deploying the technology on more of the many islands in the area.

Dr MAEDA Takahiro, a professor at the Department of General Medicine at NUH who proposed the project, also sees the potential for the system to be deployed using local 5G in elderly nursing facilities and by doctors on home visits.

“However, there are still some technical issues to be addressed, such as the quality of images produced by the cameras on the smart glasses,” explains Dr Maeda.

The population of Goto has been falling, but KAWAKAMI Toshiro of the local government’s health and welfare division says he hopes that deployment of digital technology, including the use of 5G in medicine, will make it easier for people to remain on the islands.

“The local 5G experiment has been well received by residents and we hope that it will lead to improvements not only in healthcare but in overall quality of life,” says Kawakami, who adds that Goto is in the process of establishing a digital transformation (DX) and smart island initiatives department.

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future solutions

The common thread that links these experiments from Hokkaido in the north to Nagasaki in the south is the potential for genuine transformation of the respective fields they are being conducted in through the full utilization of local 5G infrastructure and the possibilities for future international cooperation.

As part of government efforts to promote the deployment of next-generation technology and services, the national ‘Vision for a Digital Garden City Nation for Achieving Rural-Urban Digital Integration and Transformation across Japan’ concept is set to spur further progress in solving social issues in regional areas through DX.