South Korea's three main wireless network operators switched on commercial 5G networks roughly two months ago, and according to a wide range of reports there they are seeing promising signs. Specifically, 5G customers are consuming three times the amount of data as 4G customers, and the number of customers signing up for 5G is outpacing the number of customers who signed up for initial 4G networks in 2011.
While it's unclear whether sales of 5G in one country will play out in the same way in other countries, the speedy progress of 5G in South Korea is likely welcome news to other European, Asian and American vendors and operators hoping to rekindle flagging growth with a new, faster wireless network technology.
To be clear, the conditions for 5G in South Korea will be difficult to replicate elsewhere. In terms of geography, the country is roughly 20% the size of California and enjoys one of the world's most dense fiber networks for backhaul. Further, the country's telecom regulator exerts a significant amount of control over how South Korean operators price 5G services and handsets, potentially creating a more cooperative rather than competitive market. And perhaps most importantly, according to financial analysis company Fitch Solutions Macro Research, South Korea's three telcos have been coordinating the location of some of their 5G base stations, thus expanding coverage more quickly.
Nonetheless, reports indicate enthusiasm among paying customers for 5G.
For example, Total Telecom reported that a total of 600,000 South Koreans have signed up for 5G services in the first 50 days since the country's three operators switched on their networks April 5. At that pace, the publication noted the country could see up to 1 million 5G customers as soon as June.
That's faster than the uptake of 4G, according to Pulse News. The publication reported that it took South Korean operators roughly five months to hit the 1 million customer mark in 2011 at the outset of 4G.
Further, Mobile World Live reported that 5G customers are ravenous for data. LG Uplus CTO Lee Sangmin said 5G customers consume an astounding 1.3GB of data per day, far above the 400MB daily average on the operator's 4G LTE network. Similarly, KT CTO Jeon Hong-Beom said the operator is seeing a threefold increase in data consumption on 5G compared with 4G. SK Telecom CTO Park Jinhyo declined to comment on that operator's data consumption trends, noting SK would have a clearer picture by the end of the year. Likely helping the situation are the 2.7Gbit/s speeds available on South Korea's 5G.
Such progress likely is partially attributable to the cheaper prices South Korean operators have affixed to 5G plans and phones, in comparison to 4G. Indeed, as noted by VentureBeat and reported by the Korea Times, the Korea Communications Commission actually issued warnings to the country's operators that they may be violating laws by offering Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G and LG’s V50 ThinQ at unreasonably low prices. The carriers were warned against "overheated competition," which the government argued could undermine fairness in the market.
But also at play are the 5G services South Korean operators are offering. For example, one widely cited 5G promotion featured an augmented reality dragon circling a stadium in South Korea.
But operators may be juicing that content with friendly pricing too: "Much of the carrier-specific content offered to subscribers continues to be zero-rated, although we expect operators to charge for content when 5G reaches a critical mass of subscribers," wrote the analysts at Fitch Solutions Macro Research.
Of course, it probably helps that a large and growing number of South Koreans can actually access the country's 5G service. According to Ookla, there are a total of 18 cities with 5G services in South Korea. That's likely due to the thousands of base stations operators and their vendor partners are deploying: According to VentureBeat, there were more than 50,000 5G base stations in the country a few weeks ago -- a figure growing by 3,000 to 4,000 per week, according to Fitch Solutions Macro Research.
And those base stations are transmitting 5G in the 3.5GHz band -- spectrum many argue straddles the perfect balance between being able to travel long distances while also carrying lots of data.
And, although it's still early days, 5G in South Korea likely will accelerate in the months and year to come. The government recently announced its "5G Plus Strategic Business" plan that includes tax breaks and government investments totaling $27 billion by 2022. The South Korean government's goal, according to a recent research paper from the Institute for European Studies, is to secure 15% of the global 5G market by 2026, create 600,000 jobs and reach $73 billion in exports.