South Korea is getting a head start in 5G as US and China spar over Huawei

A woman walks past an advertisement for the 5G mobile network service of KT in Seoul on April 4, 2019.
A woman walks past an advertisement for the 5G mobile network service of KT in Seoul on April 4, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - South Korea's launch this week of national fifth-generation wireless services is about more than just bragging rights.

By beating the US and China to the punch, it provides a major selling point for Samsung Electronics Co. against Apple Inc. in premium smartphones and Huawei Technologies Co. in the market for mobile network gear.

It provides a chance for South Korean companies to show off their know-how and lay the groundwork to set standards and capture sales in a global 5G services market expected to grow to US$123 billion by 2025.

"Being the first means a lot because it means we're the first to lay the entire 5G infrastructure, having overcome lots of technological difficulties through collaboration between telecom, phone and gear companies," said Yang Maeng-seog, a vice president at SK Telecom Co., South Korea's biggest carrier.

"5G provides a chance for South Korea to take a leap again."

SK Telecom started its 5G service on Wednesday and Samsung begins selling a 5G-capable phone on Friday, marking the world's first full commercial roll-out.

The kickoff coincides with a technology race between the US and China over next-generation technology, a point underscored by the Trump administration's voicing of concerns about Huawei and its gear.

 
 
 
 

Verizon Communications Inc.. one of the largest telecommunication companies in the US, started services in Minneapolis and Chicago overnight Wednesday. The US carrier lacks actual 5G phones and can only offer the high-speed services to customers with a Motorola Z3 handset who pay US$50 extra for a snap-on module.

Officials from carriers such as Deutsche Telekom AG and Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. have visited South Korea to check out 5G tests, Yang said. The fact that the country is much smaller than the US or China makes it a cost-effective test-bed for national networks, he said.

Commercialising 5G also gives Asia's fourth-largest economy the opportunity to build around the technology, which promises speeds dozens of times faster than earlier generations. That includes the development of autonomous driving and the Internet of Things.