Republic of Korea South Korea 5G industrial illustration, large cellular network mast or tower on modern background with the.

South Korean government queries Samsung’s release of 5G smartphone

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Amidst exploding subscription numbers and a new record high of 2.5 million 5G customers, a South Korean government official pressed Samsung to reconsider its decision to hold back a 4G-capable version of its Galaxy Note 10 model.

Rampant growth in 5G subscriptions has proved to be something of a double-edged sword for the South Korean government, which strives to position itself as the global leader in building 5G infrastructure. Since June, when it celebrated a record 1.3 million 5G subscribers, a further 1.2 million have been added, totalling 2.5 million subscribers officially confirmed via a note from the ministry.

The government has now put pressure on native electronics giant Samsung for exclusively selling a 5G version of its Galaxy Note 10 smartphone - a move entirely contrary to the firm's strategy in other countries, where the series is being made available in both 4G and 5G models.

"This would never happen in the western world, where a minister tells a private company what products to sell or not," said Fredrik Jungermann, mobile data analyst, Tefficient.

Samsung's decision essentially forces South Korean buyers of the Galaxy Note 10 5G model into purchasing 5G contracts, which are offered by the three operators in the country at a premium price compared with 4G subscription plans, the analyst told E&T.

According to Samsung, around 1.3 million units of the Galaxy Note 10 smartphone were registered to be on preorder before the model's release date - more than twice the preorder numbers for the Galaxy Note 9. The Galaxy Note 10 5G was officially launched in mid-August.

Whilst the new 5G model does not limit Korean users to 5G networks only - users can fall back on 4G whenever 5G is not available - the price for 5G plans are considerably higher

After the government stepped in, advising Samsung to sell a 4G version, the company responded that if it were to launch a 4G version, compliance testing and other technical checks would delay its release, Jungermann said.

By then, it might be too late. "Maybe it will come out in a month, but then a couple of million Koreans will have already bought the 5G version. I think it is in their [Samsung] interest to sell the most modern version", Jungermann told E&T.

5G coverage in South Korea

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Meanwhile, South Korean operators are striving to further extend 5G coverage as fast as possible: "This is a pedal-to-the-medal strategy. The operators are building at maximum speed. It is very different compared to how the UK operators would build 5G", Jungermann said.

The South Korean government last released figures about its 5G sites on 10 June 2019, counting 61,246 in total. The latest figures show that since then, the three South Korean operators collectively built 18,763 5G sites*. This translates to approximately 250 5G sites per calendar day in a little over two months.

Jungermann also asserts that network operators may well support Samsung's move in selling its 5G Galaxy Note 10 smartphone version, as it "would allow them to win [over] even more 5G customers".

Samsung's latest promotional efforts for its 5G activity is an advertising partnership with South Korean wireless telecommunications operator SK Telecom. According to Samsung's press release, a campaign was held at the ‘Korea International Circuit’ racetrack. It featured a trial that verified that a racing car travelling at 130mph (210km/h) could still connect with stable performance to live downloads, uploads and handovers between 5G cell sites on the racetrack.

*A site can have many 5G base stations. The average is more than two and would refer to the number of physical sites equipped with 5G in Korea, according to Jungermann.

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