Sceptics will suggest consumer 5G launches will fall flat, an answer to a non-existent problem, but 260,000 subscriptions after one month suggests there is an appetite for 5G in South Korea.
Having jointly launched 5G services on April 3, the three South Korean operators are boasting total subscriptions of 260,000 according to Yonhap. This is not to say the service has been perfect, there have been plenty of problems for the telcos to deal with, but this was always going to be the case. The problem with being first is that you get to tell everyone else about the challenges.
“Many of the initial complaints raised by consumers are being addressed, but with more people using the system, other problems are expected to come to light that will require fixing,” the Ministry of Science and ICT said in a statement.
While much of the 5G attention has been directed towards the US and China, it is easy to overlook the progress which has been made in South Korea. This is the first country to have launched 5G at scale, with the Government boasting 54,202 base stations have not been deployed, up from 3,690 on April 22.
For the moment, coverage is limited to the more densely populated regions of the country, primarily in the capital Seoul, but progress is certainly impressive. Even puts the bragging telcos elsewhere to shame. South Korea has been trundling along without boasting too loudly and the success is quite clear.
Of course, what you have to remember is that scaling 5G in South Korea is a much simpler task than in other leading nations. As 5G makes use of shorter-range spectrum, network densification is a massive contributing factor to success, and you can see from the table below the task is a lot easier.
|GDP per capita
A report has alleged that Nokia is struggling to fulfill its 5G commitments to the three South Korean MNOs, but Nokia sort of insists everything’s cool.
Now it must be stressed this is just one report from a website called Business Korea that we’re not familiar with and we have yet to see the same claims made independently anywhere else. Having said that, if there is some substance to it then that’s not great news for Nokia and could have brand as well as financial consequences.
The headline reads ‘Mobile Carriers in Trouble for 5G Equipment from Nokia’. It starts by claiming that shipments of Nokia 5G gear are three months behind schedule and then goes on to say “Nokia’s equipment is lower in quality than those supplied by Samsung Electronics, Ericsson and Huawei. The former has shown some problems in interoperability testing and massive traffic processing.” It concludes by speculating that operators may need to take emergency measures to compensate for these failings.
We asked Nokia what it makes of all this and it responded with the following statement: “Nokia is actively delivering our 5G equipment to operators in Korea and we are confident that we will fulfill the 5G equipment needs of all customers. We have already started delivering 5G units to customers there and are increasing our 5G production capabilities. As a leading global communications company, we are committed to delivering best in-class products to all our partners and customers.”
That’s not the strongest rebuttal is it? The report doesn’t suggest no gear is being delivered, just that it’s late and not very good. Expressing confidence is not the same as saying the report is wrong and vowing to increase production capabilities sort of indicates they’re not currently up to scratch. Having said that it’s quite possible that everything’s fine and this report is barking up the wrong tree. The coming weeks may reveal more.
SK Telecom is apparently not using Huawei at all for its 5G roll out and this could be indicative of a broader shift in sentiment in the country.
The story comes courtesy of ZDNet, which seems to have received an announcement from SK Telecom that it’s going with Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung as ‘preferred bidders’ for 5G work. This is consistent with announcements from US operators, which are effectively barred from working with Huawei, and begs the question of whether geopolitical considerations were a factor in SK Telecom’s decision.
The stated reason for its decision is generic and offers no insight into why Huawei was excluded. SK Telecom apparently ‘took a long, multifaceted review before the selection and chose the three companies due to their leading technology, the fostering of the ecosystem, and financial reasons.’ So it’s possible, if unlikely, that Huawei was simply too expensive.
The report also notes that the South Korean government has said it has no plans to ban Huawei and that operator LG Uplus has gone on the record to say what a fan of Huawei gear it is, but it still seems a bit odd that Koreas biggest operator should spontaneously choose to snub the world’s biggest kit vendor.
The suspicion is that US allies, of which South Korea is most definitely one, are receiving pressure through diplomatic back channels to give Huawei a wide berth. The Australian government recently decided to publicly announce its distrust of Huawei but there are other ways of appeasing the US. If KT and/or LG Uplus suddenly take against Huawei too, we will have to wonder whether the decision was made entirely for business reasons.