All three of Korea’s major mobile operators switched on 5G networks simultaneous at midnight on 1 December, offering business FWA based on 3GPP standards.
The launches marked Korea as the first country to have more than one commercial 5G network. The largest operator SKT, launched the service in 13 cities, while LG U+ plans to expand its 5G coverage to 85 cities by the end of the year. KT, the second largest mobile operator and the leading fixed-line services provider, which recently suffered a fire damage to its cable tunnel, is said to be only covering the greater Seoul area with its 5G network.
The services offered are limited to business users on fixed-wireless access. The launch at LG U+ was signalled by a video call made from a PC by the operator’s Vice Chairman. SKT’s CEO made a call using a prototype 5G smartphone. Both the wireless router and the prototype phone were supplied by Samsung, which sent out a congratulatory tweet for the occasion:
⚡ Congratulations to South Korea for launching the world’s first #5G commercial services – conducted through the Samsung 5G Mobile Hotspot and 5G prototype smartphone.
The central government of Korea has been urging the operators to work together to avoid excessive competition. Henceforth there has been increased collaboration and synchronisation between the operators to achieve this so-called “Korea 5G Day”.
For consumers, the first wave of mainstream 5G smartphones are expected to hit the market by the end of Q1 next year, likely to be led by Samsung and Huawei, the three Korean operators all aim to launch 5G cellular service for consumers in March 2019. We can expect another synchronised launch.
Korea is broadly expected by the industry professionals to be one of the first countries to go live on 5G commercial service, according to the latest Telecoms.com Annual Industry Survey. With AT&T promising to launch 5G commercial service in 12 cities in the US by the end of the month, other markets touted as 5G leaders, for example Singapore, Qatar, may now feel the pressure to quicken their steps to commercialisation.
Last week, research from Deloitte placed China at the front of the pack in the race for the 5G dream, so we asked Telecoms.com readers in a snap poll who they thought was winning.
Deloitte’s reasoning was built on the progress of network densification programmes across the country, its throwing sites up all over the place, and also future investment allocations. It seems Telecoms.com readers agree with the consultancy as well.
We suspect the ‘someone else’ option was directed at a European nation, though considering only 6% decided to select this one, it is not looking good for the continent.
SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus have all agreed to launch 5G services at the same time to avoid the potentially blood-thirsty race in pursuit of the ‘first’ accolade.
According to The Korea Herald, the three telcos came to the agreement in a meeting with Yoo Young-min, the Minister in charge of the Ministry of Science and ICT, with the targeted launch date set as March 2019. While it is certainly a nice gesture, whether the telcos are able to stick to such a commitment remains to be seen.
“It is important for mobile carriers to avoid heated competition for the title of world‘s ‘first’ 5G service provider in order for Korea to become a nation that can commercialize the 5G service for the first time in the world,” said Yoo.
Although this situation should be viewed as the exception not the rule, this is a familiar sounding message. The development and standardization of 5G was painstakingly thorough partly with the ambition of all operators crossing the line together, preventing a fragmentation of the technology, and in turn, interoperability. Should the operators stick to their promise of March 2019 launch, the paranoia over competition could be removed, rushed decisions can be eradicated and deployment should be effective. Racing to the finish line can lead to mistakes, but a collaborative approach like this should put Korea in a very good position overall.
Last month the much anticipated Korean auction for 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz bands for 5G services was completed. For the 3.5 GHz band, SK Telecom spent roughly $1.1 billion for 100 MHz of spectrum, with KT paying a bit less, $870 million, for the same. LG Uplus bagged 80 MHz for $728 million. Honours were even for the 28 GHz band, with each collecting 800 MHz. The trio will be free to start using the bands from December, hopefully leaving enough time to thoroughly test enough use cases ahead of the March deadline.
Whether the loving trio can keep on good terms for another eight months remains to be seen, but the friendly route might just work out in everyone’s favour in the long run.
In a sign of the disruption set to be unleashed by the 5G era is has been reported that Korea’s main operators are all expected to switch to usage-based tariffs next year.
This is the view of Hana Financial Investment and was reported by the Yonhap news agency. The rationale stated in the report is that usage-based billing will offer higher ARPU and thus cover the cost of investing in 5G, but that seems like a pretty tenuous theory. Yes, some people will pay a premium to be able to constantly stream HD video over 5G but a lot more may end up paying very little because they’re on wifi most of the time.
“There is a high possibility that mobile carriers may change their current high definition content into UHD or virtual reality, which will inevitably lead to an increase in traffic and jack up their sales sharply,” Kim Hong-sik, an analyst at Hana Financial Investment, was quoted as saying in the report.
Usage-based billing is expected to become more commonplace, but the assumption that it will be a cash cow seems hasty. Assuming telcos every get their digital transformation act together, they should be able to get into deals with OTT players like Netflix and app developers to introduce dynamic billing models that allow premiums to be paid for certain scenarios.
Lest we forget, usage-based (or metered) billing was common back in the 3G era, but if failed because it dissuaded people from using data at all. Then they jumped to unlimited and everyone got carried away in the opposite direction, before the industry settled on the monthly allowance model that prevails today.
Unless metered billing is introduced in a much more sophisticated way this time there’s no reason to assume it will fare any better. Another billing revolution expected to accompany 5G is a return to unlimited, which would presumably appeal to heavy users, so it will be interesting to see how they manage this. The fact that all three of them seem to be planning to make the move unison is also noteworthy.
Korea’s Fair Trade Commission has said it has launched an investigation into whether Apple is abusing its market position in the market, overcharging customers and exploiting the tired telcos.
According to the Korean Times, the investigation could take up to two months and other local sources has said the fine could exceed 100 trillion won, approximately $93 million. Should Koreans find the iLeader guilty, it could make for worrying precedent for a company which has a strangle hold on its ecosystem and go-to-market strategy.
This is not the first time Apple has been under the microscope in Korea for the way it deals with telcos. The first iPhone was sold in Korea in 2009, and since that point there have been numerous claims of unfair practises, such as shifting advertising costs to the telcos or dictating how the products should be sold.
It should not be viewed as uncommon for a brand to get involved with how a product is displayed in store or through advertising, especially for Apple which is heavily reliant on the brand and consumer loyalty for the incredible sales, however should the Korean FTC unveil any dodgy conditions or criteria, there might be a bit of trouble. One of the areas which will also be included in the investigation is the pricing of the handsets themselves.
Consumers in Korea have been forced to pay 200,000 won (roughly $187) more than those in Japan and the US, which might be an issue if Apple is found to be too heavily involved. Should domestic and local telcos/outlets decide the Koreans should pay more, the FTC could say nothing as this is simply local market forces. If Apple is forcing the price up, this treated as abusing a dominant market position and unfairly exploiting the consumer.
Apple is a company which likes to maintain a level of control over its products. This is part of the reason the brand is so strong and reliable; it has a specific message and image which is communicated very consistently throughout the world. Should Korean authorities look to drive a wedge in-between Apple and the telcos because of unfair practises, the control over how the brand is presented and communicated would loosen. This would certainly be a worrying development for the iChief which has almost cult-like control over its legions of iFollowers; variances in the brand would weaken the marionette strings.
This is of course not the first time Apple has faced criticism over unfair practises. In 2013, Taiwan fined Apple for controlling prices and in 2016 France dished out a €48.5 million fine for forcing telcos to pay for advertising. It did an effective job of damage limitation there, and will be looking to do the same here.
Huawei teamed up with Korean operator LG U+ to demonstrate some novel 5G applications on the streets of Seoul.
The two set up what they claim is ‘the world’s first large-scale 5G network test in a pre-commercial environment’ in the Gangnam district, which is known for its high-rise buildings as well as the cool kids alluded to in the famous pop song. It featured base stations using the 3.5 GHz and the 28 GHz spectrum bands.
This demo was designed to coincide with the fourth global 5G event, which otherwise yielded suspiciously little news. It was symptomatic of the growing desperation from the telecoms industry to demonstrate 5G infrastructure is worth spending money on because of all the great utopian stuff it will enable.
Among those, apparently, are the ability to stream 4K IPTV video into a moving bus and to control and stream data from a VR drone. How we have coped without such basic essentials to date is a mystery, but the good news is those dark days will soon be behind us.
“The world’s first large-scale joint 5G pre-commercial test indicated a significant breakthrough in 5G,” said Kim Dae Hee, VP of LG U+ 5G Strategy Unit. “We believe that Huawei is set to help LG U+ implement the world’s first Commercial 5G network over 3.5 GHz.”
“In the Gangnam District of Korea, we have successfully validated the 5G pre-commercial network and released the world’s first 3.5 GHz CPE,” Zhou Yuefeng, Huawei Wireless Product Line CMO. “This demonstrates that Huawei will maintain its capability to provide competitive E2E 5G network products in 2018. LG U+ and Huawei will continue to conduct further research into 5G technologies and build a robust E2E industry ecosystem to achieve business success in the upcoming 5G era.”
Incidentally Gangnam Style recently became only the third YouTube video to hit three billion views, having been the first to cross the one billion mark. It is only third on the list of all time YouTube views, however, behind Despacito and See You Again – both also music videos. In fact music videos dominate the top 100 most-viewed YouTube vids, accounting for 95 of them.
The incremental crawl towards 5G is going slightly faster in South Korea, if SK Telecoms latest boasts are to be believed.
Its trial 5G network in Bundang was augmented with a relay repeater operating in both the 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz bands. The main point of this sort of thing is to overcome the propagation issues faced when using higher frequency spectrum – i.e. it doesn’t penetrate walls very well. The obvious solution to this is to install boosters anywhere the main 5G signal is struggling to reach.
One interesting nugget within this news is a partnership with SK Telesys to develop an in-building relay repeater, which can deliver 5G radio signals in 3.5 GHz using the existing mobile communications infrastructure installed inside buildings.
In another demo SK Telecom collaborated with Samsung to do a 360-degree VR video call via a tablet device. The big deal here is that the call was even maintained while moving around a high-rise urban environment, thus demonstrating the ability to keep a high bandwidth connection going in spite of real-world challenges, thanks to bits of 5G cleverness such as beamforming.
“The success of 5G wireless communications in the real-world environment will give us momentum to accelerate our effort to roll out 5G service earlier than expected,” said Park Jin-hyo, Head of Network Technology R&D Center at SK Telecom. “We, at SK Telecom will continue to develop our capabilities to rollout 5G networks in order to offer differentiated services to our customers.”
All this talk of thongs happening ‘earlier than expected’ has limited resonance without stating what those expectations were. Nonetheless the steady stream of claimed 5G firsts from South Korea contribute to the sense that it’s the current front-runner in the race to 5G. Now make some money out of it SK Telecom – then we’ll be impressed.
Korean operator SK Telecom has announced it has applied its TANGO AI-driven network management system to its entire network.
Initially TANGO (T Advanced Next Generation Operational Supporting System) had only been used on the fixed network since last December, but that presumably went well so it has now been rolled out to the mobile one too. It’s all about using AI, predictive analytics, etc, to automate and thus improve network management and optimization.
“The AI-assisted network operation technology based on big data analytics will be essential in the 5G era,” said Park Jin-hyo Head of the Network Technology R&D Center at SK Telecom. “SK Telecom will continue to improve the functionality of TANGO aiming at providing the best-performing network for customers to enjoy.”
TANGO seems to be a big deal for SK Telecom and it has even sold it to Bharti Airtel in India to help with its network. It also seems to be one of an increasing number cases in which operators have taken technological matters into their own hands. Traditionally they may have waited for the vendor community to serve up these kinds of solutions.
On the day the latest issue of the Guinness Book of Records is released, one of the most obscure is broken in Korea.
The 5G speed record in this case is not data throughput but the ability of 5G to work with a fast-moving vehicle. Samsung and Japanese telco KDDI conducted a demo at Everland Speedway in South Korea in which a vehicle accelerated from 0 to 205 km/h and they still managed to zap it with lovely, high capacity mmWaves, apparently for the first time. They even managed to hand over between base stations and everything.
“It is becoming increasingly important that we accelerate our focus on 5G’s ability to meet a growing number of performance metrics,” said Woojune Kim, Head of Next Generation Strategy at Samsung’s Networks Business. “Until now, peak bandwidth has been the common refrain, and certainly a big component of the future of 5G. However, the test we conducted with KDDI will help us build a more diverse portfolio of future 5G use cases.”
“The trial successfully showcased stable performance under high-speed mobility conditions which will dramatically increase the service experience of users in vehicles,” said Akira Matsunaga, Senior Director of Mobile Network Technical Development at KDDI. “We will continue our joint efforts with Samsung to test next generation technology to unprecedented levels and discover new service cases.”
The reason all this is a big deal, we’re told, is the potential offered by new and highly specialised service scenarios enabled by 5G. In this case we’re looking at connected cars, of course, but also public transport in smart cities and presumably things like drones. If you don’t believe they broke the record then here’s a vid that proves it.