5G is still in a holding pattern.
Users and operators are waiting for new apps and use cases to drive usage.
That's true even in northeast Asia, where China has more than 200 million 5G subscribers, South Korea around 12 million and Japan an estimated 4 million.
The arrival of the iPhone 12 has sparked take-up, but even so the latest round of 5G discounts reminds us that it's low-priced data that is making the running.
Speeding into first
This is especially true in South Korea. Their networks might be rated the world's fastest and their 5G service portfolios the broadest, but South Korean operators are turning to discounts to spark take-up and usage.
Earlier this week market leader SKT announced a 30% price cut for data plans ordered online. The new price bundles range from 62,000 won ($56.37) for unlimited data down to 38,000 won ($34.55) for 9GB.
SKT said the new online-only prices "were developed in response to the increasing customers' preference for non-face-to-face channels."
SKT's lower rates follow in the wake of rival LG Uplus, which dropped its new 5G plans last week, offering 6GB for 47,000 won ($42.80), and KT Corp, which also introduced a 5GB 45,000 won monthly plan late last year.
As state news agency Yonhap put it, user take-up "has fallen short of expectations, prompting competitive pay plans by the three carriers."
The companies had aimed for 5G to account for around 30% of the customer base by the end of last year, but by end-November had reached just 11 million, representing around 16% of the 70 million mobile users.
Yet even with the discounting there's an upside for the Korean telcos – and heartening news for other operators as well: Selling 5G data is improving the bottom line.
A poll by Yonhap's financial arm Yonhap Infomax found that the aggregate Q4 operating profit of the three telcos is likely to be around 26% higher at an estimated 670.9 billion won ($620.3 million).
Across the sea
In neighboring Japan, prices are being driven down under pressure from the government and sharper competition, but discounts appear to be the only thing that can improve the tepid 5G take-up and usage.
KDDI this week completed the current round of price cuts, revealing it will undercut NTT DoCoMo and SoftBank with a basic monthly plan of ¥2,480 yen ($23.92) for 20GB.
Last month the two rivals unveiled a basic price of ¥2,980, to be introduced in March (see SoftBank follows NTT DoCoMo with price cut).
The companies haven’t disclosed recent 5G subs numbers but DoCoMo says it believes it can reach its full-year target of 2.5 million by March.
Chinese operators haven't cut their prices since the middle of 2020. With a basic plan of 30GB priced at around 128 yuan ($19.80), and the world's highest number of 5G subs, that hasn’t seemed necessary.
Still, China Mobile has also reportedly been going as low as 89 yuan ($13.75) and China Telecom 103 yuan.
The hot topic among Chinese mobile users this week is you don't even need a 5G plan to use a 5G network. Operators are selling data to anyone who gets on to their network, even if they're still signed to 4G.
Of course, that means 5G data consumption at higher 4G rates. Nice business if you can get it.
Like everywhere else, China 5G is a race to sell data.
- China 5G still immature, says think tank
- 5G trends to watch in 2021
- Asia's 2020: Covid, Huawei and O-RAN
- Asian 5G: Four things to watch for in 2021
- China 5G crosses 200M mark as operators prep for SA
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading