5G Underwhelms in Its First Big Test in South Korea

5G Underwhelms in Its First Big Test

In South Korea, where the next-generation wireless network has been rolled out widely, download speeds have risen but many users aren’t impressed

By Eun-Young Jeong Updated Dec. 31, 2019 7:13 am ET
SEOUL—When 5G services launched here in April, Jang Dong-gil was among the first wave of South Koreans to sign up.
Now eight months in, Mr. Jang, a 30-year-old tech company worker, has a chilling review for the next-generation technology: 5G hasn’t lived up to the hype.
“I don’t feel the difference,” said Mr. Jang, who uses a 5G-enabled Samsung Electronics Co. handset. On many days, he said, he switches off his 5G service altogether because his connection often drops as his phone pingpongs between 5G and the existing 4G LTE network.
For most of 2019, South Korea was home to the vast majority of the world’s 5G users, offering the broadest lessons in what the next-generation network has to offer. Though it is still early in the global rollout, 5G service in South Korea has proved more of a future promise than a technological breakthrough.
5G launched during the past year promising to help power a future of autonomous cars, virtual reality and telesurgery—boasting speeds potentially up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G networks. The next-generation network’s potential has set off a race between Beijing and Washington, which has pressured allies to avoid adopting equipment made by China’s Huawei Technologies Co. over national-security and other concerns.
Many countries are scrambling to deploy the superfast network, hoping homegrown companies can enjoy an early advantage providing new, popular services like those from Uber Technologies Inc., Instagram and Netflix Inc. that flourished during the 4G era. Currently, few, if any, 5G apps have emerged that would justify an upgrade by consumers.
Larger countries are just beginning the transition. In the U.S., 5G services have been rolled out in select cities—though adoption remains modest, requiring consumers to buy a new phone and, in some cases, subscribe to a top-tier, unlimited data plan.
In China, the government has prioritized expanding access to 5G since its launch in November. By the end of 2020, China’s 5G subscribers are estimated to hit 120 million, said Chris Lane, an analyst at Bernstein Research. But initial 5G showcases have been limited to tests such as remote telesurgery procedures or streaming a dance performance in a remote village.
South Korea, by contrast, is much further along and is expected to end 2019 with more than 4.5 million subscribers among its population of 51 million, according to telecom analysts.
In April, the country’s top three carriers— KT Corp. , SK Telecom Co. and LG Uplus Corp. —launched 5G service on the same day Verizon Communications Inc. debuted in two U.S. cities. From the start, about half of South Korea’s population could have access to 5G service after buying a network-enabled device.
On their 5G phones, South Korean users can live-stream sports with a 360-degree view of the action, watching from any angle and in slow motion. Visitors to a Seoul park can summon a giant cat on their phone’s screen as they take in the scenery using augmented reality. Another app lets people gather in virtual-reality rooms to watch baseball games or concerts together.
But such 5G flourishes have yet to draw a large audience, industry analysts say. “There’s no killer 5G app,” said Woody Oh, a Seoul-based analyst at Strategy Analytics.
“As far as adoption goes, we’re still at the very start,” said Julian Gorman, head of Asia-Pacific for GSMA, a trade association for mobile carriers. “We’re eight months into a cycle that’s going to be many years in length,” he said.
The 3G network, which enabled data transfers among device users and launched in 2001, didn’t fully kick off until Apple Inc. ’s first iPhone came out in 2007. It took years for its successor, 4G, to bring in ride-sharing platforms like Uber and Grab Holdings Inc. since it launched in 2011.
For now, 5G’s main visible benefit lies in transferring large amounts of data quickly, such as downloading movies faster and streaming high-resolution content seamlessly. Today, some 70% of data traffic carried from mobile devices to an operator comes from video content, compared with less than 25% five years ago, said Mr. Gorman. That figure is expected to rise further with 5G.But telecom experts say 5G’s advantages are hard for consumers to experience with smartphones. The bigger leap will be felt with self-driving cars or smart cities, they say.
For current users, though, a key challenge is simply staying connected to 5G. Yun Seung-yeol, a 27-year-old architectural designer in South Korea, was given a big enticement to sign up for the new service: He got subsidies from his telecom provider to shave about two-thirds off the roughly $1,000 price tag for a 5G-enabled Galaxy Note 10 device.
He said he notices a difference on the superfast network only when downloading files or images on his phone. Mr. Yun, who has an hour-long commute to his Seoul office, said he has turned off the 5G feature on his device for the past month because he kept losing connection when he left Seoul for his home in a neighboring city. He is considering switching back to a 4G data plan if the situation doesn’t improve.
“For now, I’m not recommending anyone to use 5G,” Mr. Yun said.
Write to Eun-Young Jeong at Eun-Young.Jeong@wsj.com


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