SEOUL • South Korea's three mobile carriers and top United States telco Verizon Communications commercially launched 5G services on Wednesday, ahead of their initial schedules, as they rushed for first spot in the race to roll out the latest wireless technology.
SK Telecom and two smaller carriers had planned initially to launch 5G in South Korea today with Samsung Electronics' new Galaxy S10 5G smartphone.
However, speculation that US mobile carrier Verizon might start its 5G services early forced South Korean providers to hastily organise a late-night launch, the Yonhap news agency reported.
Verizon, one of America's largest telecommunication companies, began rolling out its 5G services in Chicago and Minneapolis on Wednesday US time, a week ahead of schedule.
But according to Yonhap, the South Korean launches came two hours earlier, at 11pm (10pm Singapore time) on Wednesday.
"SK Telecom today announced that it has activated 5G services for six celebrities representing Korea as of 11pm, April 3, 2019," the country's biggest mobile operator said in a news release yesterday.
The celebrities - including two members of K-pop band EXO and Olympic ice-skating hero Kim Yu-na - were "the world's first 5G smartphone subscribers", it said.
Both KT and LG Uplus said they also went live at the same time. For general customers, the services will be available from today - the previous launch date - when Samsung rolls out the Galaxy S10 5G, the world's first available smartphone using the technology.
In the US, Verizon customers with unlimited data plans in parts of Minneapolis and Chicago can get speeds of up to 1Gbps on a limited number of phones for an extra US$10 (S$13.50) a month. The initial launch is part of a 30-city goal for 5G services this year.
The move makes Verizon the first wireless US carrier to flip the switch on speedy, smartphone-ready 5G services in selected urban areas, the company said in a statement.
"For the first time ever, customers can access a commercial 5G network with the world's first commercially available 5G-enabled smartphone," Verizon said in a statement.
Other US carriers, including AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, have pledged to do the same soon.
Countries including South Korea, the US, China and Japan are racing to market 5G, hoping the technology will spur breakthroughs in fields such as smart cities and autonomous cars.
Through the placement of small boxes that serve as conduits for invisible, data-transmitting radio waves, 5G networks could power a wide range of consumer devices, leading to smartphones that can stream Netflix videos more quickly as well as enabling the arrival of self-driving cars.
The technology can offer data speeds that are 20 times faster than the current 4G long-term evolution or LTE networks and better support for artificial intelligence and virtual reality with low latency. Sometimes, it can also offer 100 times faster speeds.
That makes it a vital part of the infrastructure of tomorrow, and the 5G standard is expected to bring about US$565 billion in global economic benefits by 2034, according to the London-based Global System for Mobile Communications, an industry alliance.
South Korea claimed to be the first country to launch 5G, but that was disputed by US carriers like AT&T, which say they rolled out 5G in limited areas as early as last year.
Samsung was the first to unwrap a 5G phone in February when it unveiled the Galaxy S10 5G and a nearly US$2,000 folding smartphone, putting the world's top smartphone maker by volume in pole position in the 5G race, some analysts say.
LG Electronics plans to release its 5G smartphone in South Korea later this month.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST