Four years ago, South Korea led the world’s biggest rollout of 5G, promising a huge increase in network speeds that would help usher in a flurry of new technologies such as autonomous cars, augmented reality and remote surgeries. South Koreans are still waiting for that to happen.
In 2022, South Korea’s average 5G download speed was 896Mbps -roughly six times that of the country’s average 4G download speed and more than double the 5G speeds of the United Arab Emirates and the U.S., according to the Korea Telecommunications Operators Association, a trade group. Despite those achievements, the network has fallen short of what was promised.
South Korea’s three major mobile carriers—SK Telecom, KT, and LG Uplus—advertised speeds up to 20 times faster than 4G LTE as they rolled out the new service, one of the world’s first commercial 5G networks, in April 2019. But, so far, such speeds can be achieved only on localized networks with limited coverage, and aren’t being pursued for wider use. Many consumers in South Korea were left underwhelmed by the minor improvements in speed and spotty connections. The network’s quality and speed have since improved with technologies such as “standalone 5G” (5G SA) that runs on its own network infrastructure rather than relying in part on those of 4G. Still, subscriber growth for 5G service has been slower than it was for 4G, and many of the visionary services talked about in the country haven’t come around.
South Korea’s nationwide 5G network experience has improved since the new network’s introduction, and driven more data usage. But technical hurdles and cost constraints have limited the ability to offer on a wide scale the type of 5G capable of even faster speeds, according to industry analysts and some of the South Korean carriers themselves.
Some of the difficulties stem from the frequencies at which radio waves travel. Countries around the world have enabled their 5G networks on different frequency bands, with most choosing low- or mid-frequency bands. South Korea’s main telecom firms developed their public 5G networks on the 3.5-gigahertz band, a mid-frequency band.
At the same time, 5G can be enabled on the high-frequency bands supporting millimeter wave, the type touted at 5G’s inception that can provide more-extreme boosts in speed. But a significant downside is that millimeter waves don’t travel well across long distances and through obstacles such as trees, buildings and glass. Thus, networks with the highest speeds are more challenging and expensive to deploy at scale.
South Korean telecom firms chose not to use the 28-gigahertz band, a high-frequency band supporting millimeter waves, in deploying nationwide 5G networks. Under this network environment, the latest smartphones currently sold in the country also do not come with the antenna system supporting this band.
The three telecom firms recently lost their licenses for the 28-gigahertz band after they didn’t meet the mandatory set number of 5G base stations using that band that needed to be built in order to keep the licenses. Now, the government is looking to grant 28-gigahertz licenses to nontelecom entities looking to use the band for 5G services in locations they deem as fit.
In May, South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission collectively fined the country’s three carriers about $24.8 million for allegedly using misleading advertising that exaggerated the speed of their 5G networks at their launch. The promoted speeds were a target that couldn’t be achieved in everyday usage environments, the South Korean FTC said in its decision.
South Korea’s apparent retreats in millimeter-wave 5G development put the country’s 5G leadership at risk, says a recent report from OpenSignal, a mobile-analytics company that monitors and analyzes the global telecom industry.
- LG Uplus says that the 28-gigahertz band’s properties made it costly and technologically difficult to deploy at a mass scale, and that the company would continue to work on improving the quality of its 5G services.
- SK Telecom says it will continue improving its 5G services, though it notes that South Korea boasts the world’s top 5G services in terms of speed and coverage and that consumers are using more data at lower costs.
- KT declined to comment.
This doesn’t mean the millimeter-wave band has lost its commercial appeal. Today, it is being used around the world—albeit in only a handful of cases—to enable ultrafast 5G in a fixed area, such as a sports arena, airport or smart factory, industry analysts say. Major telecom operators in the U.S. and Japan are using high-frequency mmWave bands for Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) or as one of the ways of enabling their 5G networks in dense urban locations, though coverage made available through these bands is limited to small areas and line of sight communications.
In South Korea, meanwhile, the 28-gigahertz band is being used to support some private 5G networks serving specific needs. One network, for example, supports autonomous robots at a local tech company and another assists augmented-reality technologies in surgery. Special licenses were issued in both cases. The 28-gigahertz band also is being used inside parts of Seoul’s subways, a government-led project that involved the three telecom companies. But whether that network will continue to operate, given the revocation of the three carriers’ 28-gigahertz licenses, remains to be seen.
At its beginnings, 5G was touted as a technology that would usher in a new era of smart cities, autonomous driving and holograms. But even in South Korea, where 5G adoption is higher than elsewhere, those new services are being pursued but haven’t taken off widely. Low market demand, the limited availability of devices that would support 5G as well as regulatory barriers all made it difficult for related services to go mainstream, said SK Telecom, the largest of South Korea’s three telecom firms, in a rare 6G white paper that outlined some key takeaways from 5G.
That is partly a chicken-and-egg problem, says Julian Gorman, head of Asia-Pacific for GSMA, a trade association for mobile carriers. Developers are often reluctant to invest in new products for a developing technology like 5G, especially the type using millimeter waves on the high-frequency bands. In turn, telecom providers see a weaker business rationale for investing aggressively in widespread millimeter-wave 5G coverage, he says.
The usage scenarios presented at 5G’s inception were more of a demonstration of the technology rather than solid proof that there was a business need to do so, Gorman says, adding that the 5G ecosystem is still trying to determine what types of new services and technologies are wanted in the market.
The lack of 5G killer apps also feeds into a bigger trend: 5G has been a harder sell than 4G. That’s mainly because URLLC does not meet the advertised ITU-R M.2410 performance requirements. So there are no mission critical, ultra low latency/real time applications that can use 5G.
In South Korea, the number of 5G subscribers surpassed 30 million in April this year, roughly four years after 5G’s initial introduction. But with 4G, that same milestone was reached after about 2½ years, according to data from the Ministry of Science and ICT (information and communication technology).
That is a trend echoed globally as well. As of 2022, about 32% of smartphones in circulation worldwide were 5G-capable, but just 45% of those phones were activated on a 5G network, down from 55% a year earlier, according to Omdia. This partly shows that more people are upgrading to 5G phones without necessarily choosing a 5G plan, in addition to 5G not being available yet in some places, it said.
“People are simply not ready to pay more for 5G, because they’re totally content with 4G,” which many consider sufficient for doing things like streaming video, says De Renesse of Omdia. “Many still ask, why would I pay more for doing the same thing?” he says.
South Korea government fines mobile carriers $25M for exaggerating 5G speeds; KT says 5G vision not met
South Korea’s antitrust regulator said it had imposed a total of 33.6 billion won ($25.06 million) in fines on three domestic mobile carriers for exaggerating their 5G network speeds. The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) said the three South Korean firms – SK Telecom Co Ltd, KT Corp, and LG Uplus Corp – had also unfairly advertised that they were the fastest relative to their competitors.
The authors concluded that instead of expecting that the new technology alone could create successful services, it would have been more effective to have collaborated with partners to build a broader 5G ecosystem.
Gap between 5G Vision Recommendations and customer expectations:
Although the usage scenarios and capability goals presented in the 5G Vision Recommendation are future goals to be achieved in the long term, misunderstandings have been created that can lead to excessive expectations of 5G performance and innovative services based on it from the beginning of commercialization. To prevent this misunderstanding from recurring in 6G, it is necessary to consider various usage scenarios of 6G, set achievable goals, and communicate accurately with the public. In particular, there were issues raised about the maximum transmission speed of 20Gbps, which was considered an icon of 5G key performance indicators. As 3G evolved into LTE, the radio access technology also evolved from WCDMA to OFDMA, and with the introduction of CA and multi-antenna technology, it became possible to use a much wider bandwidth than 3G. This can be seen as a ‘revolutionary’ improvement. On the other hand, 5G is considered as an ‘evolutionary’ improvement that supplements the performance of LTE based on the same radio access technology, CA, and multi-antenna system technology. Due to this, it was difficult to implement the increase in transmission speed shown in LTE in 5G at once. Moreover, the difference in technology perception was further revealed in the initial stage of 5G commercialization. Early commercialization was promoted for 5G, however, 5G required more base station compared to LTE to build a nationwide network due to frequency characteristics, requiring more efforts in terms of cost and time.
SK Telecom has made significant efforts to expedite 5G nationwide rollout, but customers wanted the same level of coverage as LTE in a brief period.
KT, South Korea’s second largest operator (SK Telecom is #1), has announced its (pre-standard) 5G subscriber base has gone past the one million mark just five months after its 5G service was launched.
More importantly, KT also said it has entered into 5G roaming agreements with operators in Italy, Switzerland, and Finland. Specifically, KT has partnered with Telecom Italia Mobile in Italy, which is the largest telco in the country with over 31.7 million subscribers. The Italian telco is currently providing 5G services in Rome, Napoli, and Turin. In Switzerland, KT has partnered with the local telco Sunrise. Sunrise currently provides 5G connectivity to 262 cities, including Geneva and Zurich. In Finland, it has paired with Elisa which provides in 5G services in five cities, including Helsinki. That means that KT’s 5G subscribers will be able to use the 5G networks provided by those three operators in the three European countries.
KT has standing agreements with operators in 185 countries for 3G and 4G-LTE roaming. The operator aims to extend those agreements to 5G when 5G services go live in those countries. Prior to the agreements with the three European countries, KT had already set up a similar agreement with China Mobile, despite the fact it hasn’t launched services yet.
According to KT’s price proposals at the time of its 5G launch, customers on the starting package (paying KRW 55,000, or $46 per month) will have 8 GB roaming data while overseas, with the speed capped at 1 Mbps. Those on higher tiers (paying KRW 80,000 ($67) or KRW 100,000 ($84) per month) will have unlimited roaming data, but the speed will be capped at 100 Kbps. Customers on the premium tier of the 5G service (KRW 130,000, or $109, per month) will have the speed limited lifted to 3 Mbps.
KT’s “5G” Buses, which are equipped with transparent displays that give the South Korean passengers a taste of the 5G service, Giga-live TV.
KT is not the first South Korean operator to tie 5G roaming partnerships. We reported in July that SK Telecom 5G subscribers will be able to connect to Swisscom while travelling in Switzerland, while those on LG U+ will be able to connect to China Unicom’s 5G when travelling to its neighboring country, after the latter’s 5G service goes live.
A concern for KT 5G users intending to visit Europe is that the roaming can only be done on Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, the vendor’s first 5G smartphone, though KT said the service will be extended to other devices soon. Earlier this month, at IFA in Berlin, Samsung announced that it had already sold 2 million 5G smartphones and expected to double the volume to 4 million by the end of the year.
Korean telcos have also started performing tests on 5G standalone networks using mmWave spectrum. The standalone networks are expected to be deployed sometime next year.
KT Corp, South Korea’s largest telecommunications network operator, will participate in a nationwide project to greatly improve Internet connectivity in the Philippines, gaining a major foothold in the Southeast Asian country and neighboring region.
KT signed a 53 billion won (US$ 47 million) contract last week with the Philippines’s Converge ICT Solutions Inc. to build an optical fiber network along some 1,570 kilometers (975 miles) of main roads in the northern region of Luzon. The company hopes the contract will lead to more business partnerships with the top Philippines Internet provider in the future.
The latest deal is part of Converge’s $1.8 billion endeavor to expand its broadband coverage throughout the Philippines over the next five years. KT is increasing efforts to expand its business presence and partnerships overseas, notably in Asia, Europe and Africa, with the company’s latest Internet solutions, including GiGA Wire, GiGA WiFi and GiGA LTE.
“The partnership with Converge ICT Solutions is a great opportunity to introduce our technological expertise in telecommunications network planning, construction and operation not only in the Philippines but also in neighboring countries,” said Yun Kyoung-Lim, head of KT’s future convergence and global businesses. “KT will continue its efforts in representing the Republic of Korea to the world as the global ICT leader.”
KT is a global leader in next-generation wireless technology. The company is preparing for the commercial launch of the country’s first nationwide 5G network early next year and successfully showcased trial 5G services with the world’s first 5G-ready network. The company is also a pioneer in future technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous driving, and virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR).
In recent years, KT has installed more than 5,500 kilometers (3400 miles) of optical fiber networks in Myanmar, Bangladesh and other countries. For the Philippines-based project, the company plans to cooperate with many Korean small- and mid-sized companies, which have proven their high quality through previous overseas projects. KT expects to have more business opportunities in the Philippines, including smart energy, corporate and public innovations, and disaster and safety management.
The Korean telecom leader also signed an agreement last month with Germany-based albis-elcon to provide its GiGA solutions and next-generation technologies to communications service providers in Europe and other parts of the world. KT is also now working on various projects to improve ICT infrastructure in Africa, including broadband networks in Rwanda, Gabon and Botswana and a public security network in Angola.
Luzon is the largest of more than 7,000 islands in the Philippines and is home to the Southeast Asian country’s capital, Manila. More than half of the country’s population, estimated at over 106 million, live on Luzon. Because the country consists of so many islands, the Philippines has experienced difficulties in improving its Internet speed and telecommunications service environment.
When the optical fiber cables project in Luzon is completed in June 2020, a great number of people in the Philippines are expected to benefit from high-speed home Internet connections. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has established the Department of Information and Communications Technology, and the administration is promoting e-government services and ICT development.
KT Corporation, Korea’s largest telecommunications service provider reestablished in 1981 under the Telecommunications Business Act, is leading the era of innovations in the world’s most connected country. The company leads the 4th industrial revolution with high speed wire/wireless network and innovative ICT technology. After installing 4.5 million fixed lines for 20 million users in just 12 years, KT was the first telecom provider to introduce 5G broad-scale trial service in 2018. It is another step in KT’s continuous efforts to deliver essential products and services as it seeks to be the No.1 ICT Company and People’s Company.
For more information, please visit our English website at https://corp.kt.com/eng/
Korea Telecom (KT) announced today that it plans to offer 5G cellular service in March 2019, according to Yonhap and other news sources.
“It is true 5G only when coverage is guaranteed,” Oh Seong-mok, president of KT’s network business division, told reporters in Seoul. “KT will launch the 5G service for the first time in the world that combines true mobility, excellent service and nationwide coverage,” the KT executive added.
During this year’s PyeongChang Winter Olympics, KT offered a trial service of its 5G service for the first time in the world, allowing athletes and visitors to experience data transmission speeds 40-50 times faster than LTE.
Industry watchers said that at present, it is virtually impossible to set up a 5G nationwide network on par with existing LTE coverage, so full-fledged services will invariably be offered in major metropolitan areas first. Customers may not be able to immediately use KT’s 5G service next year because major makers of smartphones and silicon, including Samsung Electronics Co. and Qualcomm Technologies Inc., will only start shipping smart phones and 5G chip sets between the end of this year and the first half of 2019, KT said. Of course, those smart phones and silicon in them will not be compliant with the IMT 2020 standard which won’t be completed till late 2020.
Oh Seong-mok, president of KT’s network business, speaks at a press conference at the firm’s Gwanghwamun building in downtown Seoul, Thursday, stressing the firm will launch commercial 5G network services early next year based on its successful provision of the 5G trial service at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. / Courtesy of KT
KT said it has no plans to commercialize its 5G network based on Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) currently being championed by U.S. mobile carrier Verizon which plans to provide fixed 5G with an FWA system in the first half of this year. Mr. Oh said commercializing the 5G service based on FWA is a step backward as the technology has already been seen before. That comment comes after KT collaborated with Verizon on 5G video calling tests during last month’s Super Bowl, illustrating the fierce international competition to bring 5G to market first.