NTT DoCoMo has always been the most aggressive cellular operator in terms of early adoption of technology, and carries huge amounts of R&D activity and IPR in 3G systems. This led to the operator deploying 3G before anyone else, but using a pre-standard format that was not compatible with other networks.
Now the carrier looks set to repeat the pattern. Although it has said on previous occasions that it will go fully standardized at the LTE phase, it is now pushing ahead with commercial development of its 'Super 3G' network, based on a pre-standard flavor of LTE, and says it could go live with services in 2010, almost certainly ahead of the other would-be LTE first movers Vodafone, Verizon Wireless and China Mobile.
DoCoMo's go-it-alone approach also makes it very dependent on its favorite equipment and terminal makers, often from Japan as well, and the operator has far more significant R&D and financial input into its suppliers' development programs than most cellcos would expect. It has selected Fujitsu to supply the core network, based on Evolved Packet Core (EPC) technology, having previously announced that another Japanese major, NEC, would supply the RAN and terminals, as well as some core elements. Primarily, Fujitsu will provide its S-GW relay node, which connects the core network to corporate and other external networks. It is also expected to supply some RAN and terminal equipment in future.
This appears to leave Nokia Siemens Networks out in the cold, at least in the first phase of deployment - the Finnish-German venture, partnering with Panasonic, was working with DoCoMo last year on the Super3G base station project. The prototype base station was trialed at the start of this year in labs outside Tokyo, particularly looking at coexistence and roaming with Wimax and CDMA EV-DO networks, suggesting a early objective of poaching customers from KDDI, which uses CDMA and has plans for Wimax as well.
Risks and rewards
DoCoMo is not pursuing an entirely quirky technology track, but it is adopting future standards - such as EPC, the key element of SAE (System Architecture Evolution), the core network for LTE - before they are even finalized by the 3GPP and industry bodies. This strategy carries risks and rewards, as DoCoMo found when it rolled out 3G-based FOMA in 2001, years ahead of any other carrier.
On the plus side, it gets to offer highly differentiated services and terminals (if the handset makers rise to the challenge effectively) well ahead of rivals in Japan, and to export that early expertise into partnerships with, and even acquisitions of, foreign counterparts in markets with more growth potential than saturated Japan. This early move is important when DoCoMo is under increasingly intense competition from old rivals like KDDI and new ones in its homeland, where user expectations of mobile broadband services are extremely high. And now there is the additional challenge that a group led by KDDI has a Wimax license in 2.5 GHz, and the potential to roll out a 4G-style network and applications ahead of any LTE networks. KDDI has set a target for launching Wimax some time early next year.
Other LTE early movers
The risks for DoCoMo are clear - higher equipment costs before the market reaches global volume; over-dependence on a few suppliers; taking on the whole burden of marketing the new services and educating the user base; and once other LTE networks are there, difficulties in roaming and interoperability (which took many years to address for FOMA), and a rising gulf in pricing between the specially adapted DoCoMo handsets and those on the mass market.