After all that, Korea might not be first to 5G

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After all that, Korea might not be first to 5G

The Korean government has been boasting for months that Korea would be the first country to commercialize the next-generation 5G network, but recent delays and a lack of communication with carriers mean that the title may end up going to somebody else.

While Korean companies struggle, U.S. mobile carrier Verizon announced it will start its 5G service on April 11.

Industry analysts point out that the major reason Korea is running late is a lack of communication between the government, which celebrated its chance of being “the world’s first” prematurely without completing necessary preparations, and mobile carriers.

There are two things that need to be done prior to commercializing the high-speed network.

One is securing adequate telecommunications connectivity by testing 5G-enabled smartphones on the new network.

“When a new smartphone is launched, we run connectivity quality tests for at least two months,” a spokesperson from the local telecoms industry said. “But since we had to keep up with the commercialization schedule laid out by the government, we are having difficulty achieving stable 5G connectivity on our phones.”

Considering Samsung Electronics’ Galaxy S10 5G was unveiled on Feb. 20, two months from then would have meant April 20.

Currently, three local mobile carriers - SK Telecom, KT and LG U+ - are testing voice call quality as well as file download and upload speeds and battery consumption speeds of the Samsung phone in real-life situations outside of a lab environment. The phone yet struggles to operate at full 5G speeds at some 5G base stations or uses up battery much faster when a user moves from one base station to another, according to a source from the telecoms industry.

Telecommunications infrastructure established in greater Seoul also needs to be optimized for better connection with 5G phones as there is a mixture of 4G base stations and 5G stations now. Even between 5G base stations, network equipment made by different companies including Samsung Electronics, Ericsson and Huawei need to work well together.

The other headache for mobile carriers is launching new phone plans dedicated to 5G network users. While government continues to call on mobile carriers to hurry up, it has not been supportive in fixing phone plans.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Science and ICT rejected SK Telecom’s application to launch a 5G phone plan, saying the mobile carrier only crafted pricey plans fit for heavy data users.

According to industry sources, SK Telecom applied to launch a phone plan that would grant 150 gigabytes of data at a monthly fee of 75,000 won ($66), but the Science Ministry demanded the company add a phone plan priced at around 30,000 won, citing the need to reduce household phone bills.

The telecoms industry is maintaining that 5G users are likely to be heavy data users compared to LTE users and the demand for a 30,000 won plan is based on a lack of understanding of potential 5G service subscribers.

A Science Ministry official said that the ministry has not outlined the specific price of a 5G phone plan, but added, “5G services should be accessible to all consumers.” This means that since mobile carriers have established their 5G networks by renting out public airwaves, they have a responsibility to release affordable phone plans.

The Science Ministry set March as a final deadline for mobile carriers to commercialize their 5G services for mobile phones in June last year when it auctioned off 5G airwaves. The ministry openly boasted that Korea would become the first country in the world to commercialize 5G services for mobile phones. When mobile carriers raised doubts on the deadline, Science Minister You Young-min said they needed to achieve the goal to dominate the world’s telecommunications market.

“If the government remains obsessed with winning the ‘world’s first’ title, our 5G businesses could have a rough start,” said Chang Suk-gwon, a business professor at Hanyang University. “The government should stop pushing mobile carriers when they haven’t even done their job in fixing 5G phone plans.”

Chang added that it’s more important to start 5G when all relevant parties are fully set, rather than rushing through the process.

Even as Verizon threatens to become the first mobile carrier to launch 5G services, some say local mobile carriers should not be affected by the news and take their time in launching their own fully-fledged services.

Verizon said it will be launching 5G services with Motorola’s Moto Z3 smartphone, a phone that requires the add-on modem 5G Moto Mod to receive Verizon’s 5G signal.

“The Moto Z3 is not a full 5G phone and there are doubts on whether the phone will offer full speeds of 5G, which is roughly 20 times faster than the current network.” Chang said. “We just need to prepare for our own service with a real 5G phone [Galaxy S10 5G] without the greed to become the world’s first country [to commercialize 5G for phones].”


BY CHANG CHUNG-HOON and KIM JEE-HEE [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]

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