The canals of Fukuoka

As one walks along the canals of Fukuoka in the southern Kyushu island of Japan, one cannot help but notice the engineering marvels that they have constructed in a futile attempt to keep cyclists and the occasional motorcyclist from zooming down the footpaths and terrifying pedestrians.

There are a combination of carefully engineered metal bollards and twisting gates that allow a bicycle to be walked through but not ridden through, then there are areas in which bicycles are not allowed at all with even more lavish metal creations. Ultimately it seems like most cyclists simply choose to ignore the no-cycling signs and lift their bikes across these barriers and continue cycling on the other side with nobody even batting an eyelid at these transgressions.

The same can be said of Japan’s wireless space.

At APRICOT 2015 I attended one particular session with presentations from NTT and SoftBank on their state-of-the-art WiFi endeavours.

Toshiya Masuzawa from NTT Broadband Platform gave a presentation on his organisation’s carrier-grade WiFi and applications for tourists. NTT BP has over 150,000 access points deployed in densely populated areas, 20,000 of which are at rail terminals.

To improve quality, APs were shared between many providers with multiple SSIDs to avoid frequency clash.

On the other side of the equation, NTT BP has developed apps aimed at tourists to facilitate easy sign-on to the multitude of WiFi networks and provide information on sightseeing, museums and even coupons for shopping.

Ryuji Wakikawa from Softbank gave a presentation of how his company had rolled out 3G backhaul for WiFi. In what might sound counter-intuitive at first, Wakikawa explained how Softbank was leveraging its 1.5-GHz, 1.7-GHz and 2.5-GHz networks to provide WiFi both in the home and in mobile routers to free up their 2.1-GHz networks.

Offloading iPhone traffic to 1.5-GHz 3G via WiFi was key and it had to be a good quality connection else the user would simply switch back to the overloaded 2.1-GHz macro network.

Softbank offers its 3G home routers with the latest 3x3 MIMO 5-GHz AC WiFi and is also talking fiber offload.

Softbank also deploys WiFi ninjas - people with mobile WiFi access points on these less crowded frequencies at events such as sports events or concerts to help offload traffic from its conventional  macro network.

I stood up and asked the panel if all of this WiFi alchemy would have been necessary if Japan simply had simply used standard frequency bands to begin with and, in the case of tourism, had allowed foreigners to buy normal pre-paid SIMs instead of only allowing them to rent data-only SIMs.

“All I am hearing is an elegant engineering solution to government red tape on the one hand and another elegant technical solution to bad decisions made by the regulator regarding spectrum on the other,” I said.

Just like those bicycle barriers on the canals around the conference centre, I thought.

No answer came through one of the panelists seemed to turn a shade of pink trying to refrain from laughing. “We will get back to you on that,” came the moderator to the rescue, not that any of us was expecting a response.

Later I was approached by one of the delegates who told me that I was very, very naughty in asking that question though I was very, very right in pointing out the obvious.

It is considered heresy in Japan to question NTT’s decisions and I was told and it is even worse in the IPv6 space. NTT has already commandeered more than the entire country’s proper share of IPv6 address space and now is suddenly demanding that APNIC allocate the same huge amount of address space to all its competitors in the name of a fair and level playing field.

Negotiators who go up against NTT often find themselves quickly assigned to new areas due to powerful, behind-the-scenes lobbying.

At the end of the day, Japan’s spectrum allocation choices can be written off as a technological legacy hangover though in actual fact they serve as a very effective trade barrier, he explained.

Thinking back to the canals of Fukuoka, I remember one corner in which the canal and roads intersect at such an angle that it was impossible to put in one of those carefully engineered bicycle barriers. Instead, the city simply erected normal, ugly metal fences with just enough of a gap for people to squeeze through.

Perhaps this is where Japan is headed. You can offload smartphone traffic to a mobile router running over a 1.5-GHz oddball 3G network, you can use 5-GHz AC WiFi to compensate for noisy 2.4-GHz spectrum, but what then? How much further can Japan go on its winding canal paths of oddball frequencies before things change and someone realises that something is not quite right and that perhaps teaching cyclists to cycle on proper, standard spectrum might be the best way forward after all?