Seoul city skyline at night

South Korea launches 5G early to secure world first

Image credit: Leung Cho Pan | Dreamstime.com

South Korea’s telecoms providers have turned on super-fast 5G mobile internet networks ahead of schedule, in an attempt to ensure the country is first to launch the services.

The 5G networks of the three leading South Korean mobile providers – K Telecom, KT Corporation and LG Uplus – went live at 11pm on Wednesday (3 April) local time. Hours later and a week ahead of schedule, US carrier Verizon turned on its 5G network in some areas of Minneapolis and Chicago.

The South Korean firms had planned to start their 5G services on Friday 5 April, but the scheduling was altered to stay ahead of Verizon. The changes came hours after a meeting with government regulators, who modified service terms so users could sign up earlier. The South Korean services were initially only available to a few individuals selected as brand promoters, including figure skating superstar Yuna Kim, who SK Telecom announced as one of its first customers.

Sources say that in beating the US and China in the 5G race, Samsung has been provided with a major selling point against its rivals in the market: US-based Apple and controversial China-based Huawei Technologies. The early launch also provides an opportunity for South Korean companies to show off their know-how and lay the groundwork to set standards and capture sales in a global 5G services market, which is expected to grow to $123bn (£94bn) by 2025.

“Being the first means a lot because it means we’re the first to lay the entire 5G infrastructure, having overcome lots of technological difficulties through collaboration between telecom, phone and gear companies,” said Yang Maeng-seog.

“5G provides a chance for South Korea to take a leap again,” added Maeong-seog, vice president at SK Telecom Co (South Korea’s biggest carrier).

Officials from carriers such as Deutsche Telekom AG and Singapore Telecommunications Ltd have visited South Korea to look into 5G tests, Yang said, adding that he fact that the country is much smaller than the US or China makes it a cost-effective test-bed for national networks.

Commercialising 5G also gives Asia’s fourth-largest economy the opportunity to build around the technology, which includes the development of autonomous driving and the Internet of Things (IoT). The carriers say 5G-enabled smartphones can download data 20 times faster than existing 4G devices, which would (in theory) enable users to download movie files almost instantly. Companies also claim the faster networks would also improve live broadcasts and streaming services for music and video, while allowing for a broader range of virtual reality services.

Regular customers in the capital Seoul and some other major cities will be able to sign up for 5G services starting on Friday (5 April 2019), with the carriers planning to expand their coverage to 85 cities across the country by the end of the year.

“The government and private companies came together to achieve the world's first commercialised 5G services and this proves once again our country is undoubtedly the top powerhouse in information and communications,” said You Young-min, South Korean minister for science and information technology.

In February 2019, US President Donald Trump called for American companies to roll out a 6G network in the country or risk getting “left behind”.

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