- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2019

SEOULSouth Korea appears to have the early lead if the launch of next-generation 5G cellular networks truly is a global race.

Asia’s fourth-largest economy launched commercial service in early April and already boasts more than 1 million 5G subscribers.

Shops in downtown Seoul peddle discounts for anyone willing to upgrade to 5G-enabled devices, and carriers plan to blanket shopping malls, train stations and airports with the lightning-fast broadband service, which is seen as key to emerging technologies such as driverless cars, smart appliances and machines, virtual reality applications and artificial intelligence systems.

Government officials said tens of thousands of 5G base stations — antennas, essentially — are in place across the country and that carrier KT even managed to dispatch service to an isolated village in the Demilitarized Zone abutting North Korea.

South Korea is currently No. 1 in 5G deployments both in terms of the number of 5G subscribers as well as 5G penetration,” said Chetan Sharma, who runs a Seattle-based consulting company for the mobile industry. “Koreans are early adopters, technology-savvy, and the country in general benefits from progressive industrial policy that aligns country goals with the industry road map.”

Telecommunications is a crucial industry in South Korea, where corporate logos of the biggest carriers — KT, SK Telecom and LG Uplus — dot the Seoul skyline. Those networks launched nationwide 5G service at an April 3 gala featuring K-pop stars and Olympic athletes.

Verizon disputes the first-to-launch claim and says it beat the South Koreans by a few hours in pockets of Minneapolis and Chicago. Yet analysts say South Korea is way ahead of any other country in making sure people who want it have access to 5G.

Many countries are just starting to set up their networks, so global statistics are hard to find. Mr. Sharma, though, puts the number of 5G subscribers in the U.S. in the “low thousands.”

The U.S. and other major nations will catch up in terms of overall users, he said, but the Koreans “are likely to stay the leader in 5G penetration, given the smaller size of the country.”

South Korea’s goal is to make 5G connectivity available to over 90% of the population by the end of the year, said Rep. Park Sun-sook, a member of the National Assembly.

The South Korean Ministry of Science and Technology told the Yonhap News Agency last month that South Korean companies had signed up the first 1 million 5G subscribers in just 69 days after the April launch. That was 11 days faster than it took to get 1 million customers for the new 4G service in 2011.

But being a 5G leader comes with hiccups.

Some early subscribers complained about spotty service that they couldn’t always use from place to place.

Ms. Park said carriers are working to improve consistency in networks’ speed and connectivity.

Still, some consumers are skeptical.

“Right now, it doesn’t really work,” Lee Sang-min, a 15-year-old shopper in Myeongdong, told The Washington Times through an interpreter. He said he will probably wait awhile before subscribing.

The Huawei hang-up

The rollout also has been caught up in the Trump administration’s push to blacklist Huawei, the major Chinese provider of 5G equipment and national systems, at home and abroad. U.S. officials say Huawei’s close ties to China’s intelligence and military services present a major security risk and have pressured countries across Asia and Europe not to use Huawei in their 5G systems.

The U.S. battle with Huawei has put South Korea in a particularly awkward spot, caught between its diplomatic and security alliance with Washington on one side and its booming economic, financial and trade ties with China.

Pressuring China over Huawei could produce the kind of backlash Beijing dished out to Seoul when it deployed the Pentagon’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, an anti-missile system.

“Our government is concerned about another ‘THAAD’-like economic pressure,” said Shin Beomchul, an analyst on inter-Korean relations at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a nonpartisan think tank.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in made Seoul’s concerns explicit in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Group of 20 summit last month in Japan. He pleaded with the Chinese leader not to force Seoul to choose between Washington and Beijing trade relations during its 5G rollout.

“The U.S. and China are Korea’s top two trading partners, and are both important,” Mr. Moon told Mr. Xi, according to South Korean newspapers.

As it stands, only one of the three big Korean carriers, LG Uplus, uses Huawei equipment. The company told The Washington Times that Huawei syncs up well with the type of technology it deploys. Plus, the equipment is already set up in the areas it wants to cover.

The Chosun Ilbo newspaper based in Seoul reported that Huawei has been aggressively marketing its wares and dominates South Korean communications backbone networks.

The South Korean government is taking a hands-off approach to 5G equipment decisions, though it says it is performing inspections to make sure the technology is safe and secure. In the meantime, South Korean carriers are focusing on the fun side of a new world of lightning-fast data.

The sign above a KT cellular store in the capital’s busy Myeongdong district says it all: With 5G, you’ve got “superpower.”

It’s a nod to the technical clout of fifth-generation networks along with the lifestyle benefits of having a Galaxy S10 from the king of South Korean firms, Samsung.

The glitzy device was the first to fully harness the power of 5G. Users can video-chat with eight friends at once, take 360-degree photos without twirling the phone around or watch a baseball game from several vantage points on the field.

Down the street in Myeongdong, a shop beckons consumers with a generous offer on its chalkboard outside: Upgrade to 5G and get immediate discounts on phones from Korean manufacturers such as Samsung and LG.

Hugh Ujhazy, an Asia-Pacific market analyst for the International Data Corp., said Chinese companies such as Huawei, Oppo and Xiaomi are introducing their own hand-held devices even if the South Koreans “got there first.”

“The development of 5G capable handsets was always going to be a race,” he said, “with Chinese phone manufacturers hot on their heels.”

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