Why let a small thing like handset unavailability get in the way of your 5G launch? South Korea's three national operators -- KT Corp, SK Telecom and LG U+ -- propelled the Asian country to the very summit of the 5G league table at the weekend when they all switched on a commercial 5G network as part of a grand, government-sanctioned plan to avoid unnecessary marketing costs, according to mainstream press reports. South Korean 5G has arrived, it seems. It's just that consumers might not know it.
Obviously, consumers don't have to know about the technologies they use. Most people would assume the cow-chewing-cud facial expression if you mentioned "float chamber," and yet that's an essential part of any car's engine. Unfortunately, with the current absence of compatible handsets, South Korean smartphone customers can't even use 5G technology in ignorance.
So what's the point of the multi-operator 5G launch?
No doubt, a technology-obsessed nation like South Korea wants the industry attention and possible plaudits that come from switching on 5G networks ahead of other countries. But there is perhaps more to its latest 5G moves than pure spin. The details of the SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) (SKT) announcement alone should alarm anyone in the West who agrees that 5G -- in the long term -- will be mainly about industrial advantage rather than consumer gadgetry.
Yes, there is a nod to consumer gadgets in the operator's statement: A prototype Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) smartphone was used to test calls on a 5G network that now covers the main areas of 13 cities, including Seoul. Of much greater interest, however, is the revelation that Myunghwa Industry, a car parts supplier, is already using 5G for process improvements at its factory. Cameras installed near conveyor belts take super-high-resolution photos of car parts before the resulting images are sent over a 5G connection to the cloud, where they are scanned by artificially intelligent computers for defects.
These are 12-million-pixel cameras, according to SKT's statement, which is likely to rule out the use of less advanced mobile networks. Nor would any 4G connection be able to provide the same guarantees as a 5G network that supports "network slicing." With that technique, an operator can effectively reserve a portion of the network for a certain type of service (although SKT, it should be noted, makes no mention of network slicing in its 5G release).
That's not all, either. SKT has also started test-driving 5G-enabled autonomous vehicles on public roads, it claims. These vehicles were apparently able to exchange information with a control center and traffic lights over the operator's 5G network.
Of course, testing 5G in an autonomous vehicle does not mean South Korea is braced for an influx of 5G-powered, self-driving cars. Skeptics will also be keen to know whether Myunghwa Industry has fully embraced 5G as a productivity-enhancing technology, or if it is simply engaged in a sophisticated trial. After all, SKT had no details of additional customers to share.
Nevertheless, operators are pitching 5G-compatible routers at other business customers, according to press reports. And even if Myunghwa's is not yet a full-blown commercial service, SKT is evidently prioritizing the enterprise over the consumer opportunity in the immediate absence of 5G phones. Most European and US operators are doing the opposite. Yet to launch their own 5G networks, they initially see 5G as a cost-effective way to boost bandwidth for smartphone and residential broadband customers. As recently as June this year, senior technology executives from the UK's BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) and France's Orange (NYSE: FTE) even complained there was still no compelling business case for using 5G outside the consumer market. While they worry about a vacuum, South Korean businesses may already be starting to fill it. (See 5G Still More Like Rocket Fuel Than a Mission to Mars.)
If nothing else, SKT's announcement should be another wake-up call for some Western economies. "If a country or continent stays behind in the 5G era, that could have an impact on the competitiveness of industries operating from that country or continent," said Kristian Pullola, the Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) chief financial officer, after the Finnish vendor had secured a 5G R&D funding boost from the Nordic Investment Bank this morning. "We see that investments are ongoing in the US and expect China to invest a lot in the industrial use cases around 5G. As a result, we all need to respond to that." (See Nokia Gets €250M 5G R&D Boost From Nordic Lender.)
It would be wrong to say there has been zero progress this year. In late November, BT convincingly showed reporters and analysts how 5G could substitute for older satellite systems in live TV broadcasting. Mobile rival Vodafone UK demonstrated a 5G holographic call a few weeks earlier. But the self-driving 5G car and the 5G-powered robot surgeon have become laughable clichés in Europe, and there is still not much else. By the time Europe launches its first consumer-oriented 5G networks, South Korea's telcos are likely to have spent at least a year marketing 5G technology to business customers. That lead could translate into a much bigger economic advantage than anything that happens with smartphones. (See Vodafone's Holo Demo Dazzles Crowd, But Is It a Viable 5G Use Case? and BT Hopes to Score With 5G Broadcasting Push.)
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading