South Korea has become the first nation in Asia to launch commercial 5G networks after three carriers, KT, LG UPlus, and SK Telecom, switched on services at midnight on December 1, 2018.
It seems that the 5G services are currently only available for enterprise users, with consumer mobile services not expected to be launched until March 2019. The move by the three Korean carriers closely follows Verizon’s recent fixed 5G wireless launch in the U.S., while AT&T is expected to launch something soon.
SK Telecom, which officially announced its 5G launch with a press release, appears to have the most extensive commercial deployment in South Korea to date with services now available in 13 cities and counties throughout South Korea. The carrier, which has previously unveiled 5GX as its 5G brand, said the first call over the commercial 5G network was made by its CEO, Park Jung Ho, between Bundang in Gyeonggi Province and Myeondong in Seoul using a Samsung 5G smartphone prototype.
SK Telecom also named auto parts manufacturer Myunghwa Industry as its first 5G client. The carrier has placed a strong emphasis on the convergence of 5G and artificial intelligence and said Myunghwa is now using what it called the “5G-AI machine vision” solution to verify product quality. It also said test drives of 5G self-driving cars have begun on public roads.
According to the Korea Herald, KT and LG UPlus marked the commercial switch-on of their respective 5G networks on the same date, although rollouts currently appear to be on a smaller scale. Various reports said KT launched its first 5G offering in Gwacheon, while the Korea Herald reported that the carrier has deployed 5G infrastructure in Seoul and six other metropolitan cities across the country.
LG Uplus, meanwhile, was said to have conducted a 5G video call in Magok, Seoul, using a laptop connected to a 5G router. The carrier reportedly has established around 4,100 5G base stations and plans to increase the number to 7,000 by the end of December 2018.
The three launches certainly reflect the fact that competition in the South Korean wireless market has been fierce, with all three carriers vying to be first with 5G. SK Telecom has tended to maintain the lead in that race, successfully acquiring all the essential components for 5G commercialization using 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz frequencies and benefitting from a close collaboration with Samsung.
Indeed, Samsung said in September 2018 that it would work with the carrier on the commercial deployment of core and RAN solutions based on the non-standalone (NSA) 5G new radio (NR) standard. Ericsson and Nokia have also been selected as preferred bidders for 5G.
KT has also chosen Samsung as well as Ericsson and Nokia as its 5G equipment partners, while LG Uplus looks to be leaning more toward installing Huawei equipment. However, as has been the case in other countries, the carrier has come under pressure to exclude the China-based equipment manufacturer over security concerns.