South Korea was the first country to launch commercial 5G networks in April 2019 and currently has 5G coverage across its 85 cities. 5G subscribers in South Korea are now nearly 24 million as of May 2022, Korean press reported, citing data from the Ministry of Science and ICT.
According to previous reports, the number of 5G users in the country has been increasing in recent months due to the launch of new smartphones including Apple’s new iPhone 13 series.
SK Telecom, the country’s largest mobile operator by subscriptions, ended May with 11.4 million 5G subscribers, followed by KT with 7.3 million and LG Uplus with 5.2 million, according to the report. South Korean telcos expect 5G subscriptions will grow even faster when cheaper data plans are launched, possibly in the third quarter, per the government’s drive to ease the phone bill payment burden for households.
The number of 4G subscribers in South Korea reached 47 million as of the end of May. Also, mobile virtual network operators in the Asian nation had a combined 83,256 users as of the end of the month.
South Korean telecom operators currently provide 5G services via Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G networks, which depend on previous 4G LTE networks.
Korean mobile operators have deployed a total of 202,903 5G base stations as of the end of February, according to previous reports. This figure is equivalent to 23% of total 4G LTE base stations installed in South Korea.
In June 2018, the ICT ministry completed an auction for 5G frequencies in which local carriers SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus secured spectrum to launch 5G services in the Asian nation.
SK Telecom and KT each won 100 megahertz in the 3.5 GHz band while LG Uplus had obtained a bloc of 80 megahertz of spectrum.
In February, the government of South Korea has postponed an auction to award additional 5G spectrum as local mobile operators SK Telecom and KT have complained about the process.
In December of 2021, South Korea’s Science and ICT ministry had said it would open bidding for additional 5G networks in the 3.4-3.42 GHz spectrum, as requested by LG Uplus, the country’s smallest mobile operator.
However, SK Telecom and KT have complained about the ministry’s decision, as they claim that LG Uplus is at a relative advantage as the spectrum it had requested is closest to its current frequencies and will cost considerably less for LG Uplus to utilize it.
According to a recent report by the GSMA, 5G connections accounted for 33% of total mobile connections in South Korea last year, while this technology will represent 73% of total connections in 2025.
A new report released by RootMetrics (owned by IHS Markit), shared the 5G performance results in four major South Korean cities in the first half of 2021. Three South Korean operators, KT, LG Uplus and SK Telecom, claim to have provided users with widespread access to 5G, remarkable speeds, and low latency.
According to the report, LG Uplus’s 5G network in Seoul has the fastest speed, the shortest latency, and the best coverage, providing end users with an optimal 5G experience. This is the third consecutive year that LG Uplus has maintained their position as a 5G industry leader. Of note, the report stated that LG Uplus made the most efficient use of the spectrum, despite only 80 MHz of 5G bandwidth, less than that of KT and SK Telecom, with 100 MHz each.
South Korea’s 5G availability and user speed, which are the two key components of a consumer’s 5G experience, are ahead of most of the rest of the world. RootMetrics considers LG Uplus in Seoul to be the best 5G network based on the 5G report results in four cities (see image below):
- Best 5G coverage: LG Uplus provides coverage in all scenarios, including outdoor, indoor, high-speed railway, metro, hot spots etc., with 95.2% 5G availability. That means the network is providing ubiquitous 5G access, far more than cities like New York and London city.
- Fastest 5G speed: The median speed of 5G users is 640.7 Mbps, which is much higher than in other cities with 5G access.
LG Uplus has built 5G networks with high-bandwidth massive MIMO, deployed 64TRx Massive MIMO at scale for outdoor scenarios and LampSite+distributed Massive MIMO for indoor scenarios to build “Everywhere” Massive MIMO. In addition, 5G AI+ has also been introduced. Together these technology build the strongest and most intelligent 5G network, according to RootMetrics.
The report says that the performance of the other two major operators in South Korea is also impressive. The 5G availability of the three operators has increased to over 93% and the median speed is over 461 Mbps, which means end users can access the 5G network no matter their location to enjoy the ultimate 5G experience. RootMetrics can’t help praise: South Korea is winning the global 5G race, with availability and speeds that are far, far ahead of others.
“5G is becoming the foundation of our connected communities and as important a piece of infrastructure as is water, roads, or electricity. We’ve tested performance in South Korea over many years. Our results continue to show that South Korean operators have taken a leading position in delivering the type of 5G experience that can help fuel new consumer and business activity,” said Patrick Linder, Chief Marketing Officer at RootMetrics. “As 5G continues to expand across the globe, the implementation strategies and performance seen in South Korea have set an impressive standard for other operators to follow.”
In sharp contrast to RootMetrics’ glowing praise for 5G in South Korea, many 5G customers there are extremely dissatisfied as per this Light Reading article:
Their gripe is that 5G is little better than 4G in terms of speed, while coverage is annoyingly patchy. Worst of all, they’re locked into much more expensive two-year contracts when compared to LTE tariffs.
Rather than just put up with their 5G lot, this unhappy crew is intending to take part in a collective lawsuit and seek compensation of at least KRW1 million ($890) each. South Korean law firm Joowon is spearheading the legal action.
“Considering that monthly 5G plans are around 50,000 won more expensive than 4G LTE plans, we expect around 1 million won in compensation for users subscribed to two-year plans,” explained Kim Jin-wook, a Joowon lawyer.
Kim indicated that South Korea’s “big three” had a case to answer. They initially advertised 5G download speeds as being 20 times faster than 4G LTE, when they first came out of the 5G traps in April 2019, but a government report last year apparently found that average 5G download speeds were just four times faster than 4G.
Korea Bizwire points out that the Korea National Council of Consumer Organizations, a consumer advocacy group, recommended last October that carriers pay as much as KRW350,000 ($309) in compensation to users who filed for mediation over what they saw as a mediocre 5G service.
As of January the number of 5G subscribers in South Korea was just shy of 13 million, which was less than 20% of all mobile network users in the country.
5G customer dissatisfaction is a worldwide phenomenon. In May, Reuters reported that “about 70% of (global 5G) users are dissatisfied with the apps and services bundled with their 5G plans, according to a study carried out by Ericsson ConsumerLab in 26 markets around the world.
“While early adopters are pleased with 5G network speeds, they are already expressing dissatisfaction with a lack of bundled new and innovative apps and services, which they feel were promised in the marketing pitch for 5G,” Ericsson said.
“Service providers need to offer exclusive content and services that could differentiate a 5G experience from 4G and promote a sense of novelty and exclusivity,” Ericsson said.
Finally, none of the South Korea carriers have deployed a 5G SA/Core network, despite Samsung’s bogus claim of November 4, 2020: “Samsung and KT announced they have successfully deployed Korea’s first 5G Standalone (SA) and Non-Standalone (NSA) common core in KT’s commercial network. KT will commercially launch its SA network when 5G SA-capable devices become available in the market.”
Well, that hasn’t happened yet, so KT’s 5G SA network has yet to be deployed! The major benefits of 5G, like network slicing, automation, secure communications, new QoS model, etc. are ONLY realized via a 5G SA core network.
The 5G SA architecture connects the 5G Radio (base station or small cell) directly to the 5G core network, and the control signaling does not depend on the 4G network as it does in 5G NSA. The full set of 5G Phase 1 services (defined in 3GPP Release 15) are ONLY supported in 5G SA mode.
GSMA has identified 12 5G SA networks worldwide. None are in South Korea:
At least 12 operators in nine countries/territories are understood to have launched (or close to launch) public 5G SA networks:
- China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom have all launched 5G SA networks (China Telecom and China Unicom sharing some of the network construction). China Mobile has deployed or upgraded 400,000 base stations to support standalone services, while China Telecom announced its service launch covering more than 300 cities.
- T-Mobile in the USA has launched 5G SA nationwide using spectrum at 600 MHz.
- RAIN has launched 5G SA in parts of Cape Town in South Africa to support 5G FWA services and DIRECTV in Colombia has launched 5G SA for FWA in parts of Bogota. China Mobile Hong Kong announced the launch of 5G SA in late 2020.
- Mass Response (Spusu) has launched a limited network in Austria and is progressing with a wider regional deployment and, most recently.
- Telefonica and Vodafone have launched 5G SA networks in Germany.
- STC has announced a commercial launch in Kuwait.
- Singtel has announced its launch in Singapore (with other operators in Singapore expected to go live very soon).
- In Saudi Arabia, STC has announced that it has activated its 5G SA networks, although GSA is waiting for confirmation of availability of commercial services for customers before classifying its 5G SA networks as launched. Also, in Saudi Arabia, ITC has announced a soft launch of a 5G SA network.
- In Australia, Telstra has deployed a 5G core network and has stated it is ready to launch its 5G SA network once a sufficient range of suitable devices is available in the Australian market.
The big three South Korean mobile operators – SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus -have agreed to share their 5G networks in 131 remote locations across the country, Yonhap news agency reported. According to the Ministry of Science and ICT. the initiative is designed to accelerate the rollout of 5G networks across the country.
Under the plan, a 5G user would be able to use other carrier networks in such regions that are not serviced by their carrier. The ministry said telecom operators will test the network sharing system before the end of this year and aim for complete commercialization in phases by 2024.
The ministry said the selected remote regions are sparsely populated, with a population density of 92 people per square kilometer, compared with those without network sharing at 3,490 people per square kilometer.
The move comes as the country races to establish nationwide 5G coverage, with network equipment currently installed in major cities. The big three South Korean telecom operators promised in July 2020 to invest up to 25.7 trillion won (US$23.02 billion) to update their network infrastructure by 2022.
South Korea was the world’s first country to commercialize 5G in April 2019. As of February 2021, the country had 13.66 million 5G subscriptions, after a net addition of 792,118 subscribers during the month. That’s 19 percent of its total mobile users. SK Telecom had the largest number of 5G subscribers at 6.35 million, followed by KT Corp. at 4.16 million and LG Uplus at 3.15 million.
According to data from the Ministry of Science and ICT, a big boost in 5G subscriptions during the first two months of the year was chiefly due to the popularity of Samsung Electronics’ latest flagship Galaxy S21 smartphones, which already surpassed 1 million units in domestic sales last week. The country’s three carriers are seeking faster adoption of 5G across the country and have announced more affordable 5G plans to promote the adoption of the technology.
South Korean telecom operators currently provide 5G services via non-standalone 5G networks, which depend on previous 4G LTE networks. The country’s three operators launched 5G technology in April 2019, and 5G networks are available mostly in large cities.
SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus are currently preparing to commercialize new technology, such as Standalone versions of the 5G networks and millimeter-wave 5G.