WSJ: 5G in South Korea has not lived up to expectations

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.

The current split in usage of 5G—a high-frequency band in places where extreme speeds and low-latency connections are most needed, while a slightly slower but far more stable form of 5G serves the general public—demonstrates how telecom networks are more than just a way of connecting mobile phones to the internet, says Ronan De Renesse, a U.K.-based senior research director covering telecommunications at Omdia, a tech-market researcher. “It’s a benefit of 5G to find that you can use multiple frequency bands, work with multiple networks for varying needs and data demands,” he says.

Subscriber growth for 5G service in South Korea has been slower than it was for 4G. PHOTO CREDIT: JEON HEON-KYUN/SHUTTERSTOCK


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.


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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 three telecom companies advertised that consumers could use target 5G network speeds, which cannot be achieved in real-life environment … companies advertised that their 5G network speed was faster than competitors without evidence,” the KFTC said in a statement.

In support of ongoing civil lawsuits filed by consumers, the advertisements released by the three mobile carriers have been presented by the regulator to a local court.

SK Telecom and KT Corp declined to comment. A spokesperson at LG Uplus said the company is reviewing the sanctions.

The KFTC imposed a fine of 16.8 billion won on SK Telecom, 13.9 billion won on KT and 2.8 billion won on LG Uplus.

There were 30.76 million 5G network users in South Korea in June, accounting for about 38% of the total 80.23 million mobile subscriptions in the country, according to data from the Ministry of Science and ICT.

Source: Reuters

In a paper issued last week, SK Telecom states correctly the industry is far from achieving its 5G goals even four years after commercialization.  There were “misunderstandings” about network performance and problems such as device form factors and lack of market demand, it said. “A variety of visionary services were expected, but there was no killer service,” the paper stated. “We should have taken a more objective perspective,” it added.  In  particular:

A variety of visionary services were expected, but there was no killer service Even at the time when preparing for 5G, services such as autonomous driving, UAM, XR, hologram, and digital twin had appeared and expected, but most of them did not live up to expectations. We should have taken a more objective perspective. For example, whether 5G technology alone could change the future, or whether the overall environment constituting the service was prepared together. If so, the gap between the public’s expectations for 5G and the reality would not have been large. 3D video, UHD streaming, AR/VR, autonomous driving, remote surgery, etc. are representative services that are not still successful presented by the 5G Vision Recommendation. Most of them are the result of a combination of factors such as form factor constraints, immaturity of device and service technology, low or absent
market demand, and policy/regulation issues, rather than a single factor of the lack of 5G performance.

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.