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5G: Why Korea is leading the way

5G: Why Korea is leading the way

A vibrant market for 5G telecom services is starting to emerge in markets with advanced telecoms infrastructure — and nowhere are the opportunities more significant than in Korea, a country leading the world in the field. 

Companies with compelling 5G technologies or solutions should look closely at Korea – an ICT powerhouse with core competencies across devices, infrastructure and services. A foothold in this market could offer large returns in itself, but also ensure you’re well-placed to win contracts in countries that follow its lead in the 5G roll-out.

What does 5G offer?

In essence, 5G — the ‘fifth generation mobile network’ — promises:

  • incredible speeds — far greater than 4G, potentially up to 1Gb/s in certain environments
  • ultra-low latency — delays that are truly negligible (perhaps less than 1 millisecond), enabling it to be used in applications where latency is safety-critical like autonomous vehicles 
  • high capacity — the ability to carry vast amounts of data, which would be necessary to support a whole range of new uses from connected cars to VR and HD video streaming

Leading the pack

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening in Korea.

While 5G innovation is intensively under way in China, Japan, the US and elsewhere, South Korea is arguably leading the pack. The country auctioned its first 5G licences last summer for $3.3 billion and was one of the first countries to deploy a commercial 5G network. 

The service went live in December 2018 for limited commercial uses, and a 5G ecosystem is rapidly emerging around the country’s three telcos. 

One early adopter of the commercial 5G service is automotive parts manufacturer Myunghwa Industry, which is using 5G to transmit 12-megapixel images of car parts to a cloud-based AI system which scans them for defects. 

Another is Lota, the robot guide at the 123-storey Lotte World Tower (pictured above), who greets and escorts visitors in the observatory at the top of the building. 

A consumer roll-out in Korea is due this March — set to be the first in the world.

‘Smart cities’ is an area that’s expected to grow massively with the enabling 5G network. In Korea, smart city pilot projects in Sejong City and Busan are under way and, when completed in 2021, will offer services such as autonomous vehicle sharing and real-time water quality management.

Only this week, Hyundai Mobis and Korean telco KT announced they’re harnessing 5G communication at the Hyundai Mobis test site in South Korea’s Ruishan City to develop the latest connected car technology.


Main players

As with many tech developments in Korea, 5G is being driven by a handful of companies. 

SK Telecom, Korea’s largest telco, is making huge investments in 5G and working closely with Samsung on the roll-out of its network. This should help Samsung catch Huawei in the telecom equipment race, especially in light of the problems facing Huawei and ZTE in many of the advanced markets around the world.

As of this month, SK Telecom says its 5G network covers 13 Korean cities, while KT and LG Uplus – Korea’s two other operators – are undertaking their own, albeit smaller, deployments. 

SK Telecom has selected Samsung for its 5G bases stations in Seoul, Ericsson for Busan and the surrounding Gyeongsang province and Nokia for Jeolla, Gangwon and Jeju provinces. 

Samsung is determined to secure a large share of the 5G equipment market. In 2018, it was the fifth-largest network equipment manufacturer worldwide, with just 3% market share. It wants to increase this significantly to support its mobile phone and IoT ambitions. The company is doing well in the US and has worked with Verizon on the launch of its commercial 5G network in Sacramento, California. 

Meanwhile, on the handset side, Samsung and LG are expected to show 5G phones at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this February, and are keen not to lose further ground to China’s increasingly sophisticated handset firms.

Opportunities for western firms

Vitally, significant opportunities are emerging for international companies as Korean operators commercialise 5G technology and deploy their networks nationwide this year.  

Korea’s three telcos have already installed more than 10,000 5G base stations, and transport hubs such as airports, railway stations and highways will be the focus of SK Telecom’s and other operators’ investment activities now and for years to come.

Western companies which have technologies that can offer incremental improvements to this infrastructure will find an already-large and growing market. 

At the same time, operators are seeking to provide new services to recoup their investment in the new standard. Korea has generally excelled in the development of infrastructure but does not have the same strength in developing use cases — an area of promise for international companies that can offer useful services at the right price. 

So, Korea’s fledgling 5G market offers huge potential to overseas firms. But success is far from guaranteed. Understanding the operators’ strategies and investment plans is important, yet they’re notoriously difficult to navigate and sell to. At the same time, channel partners such as systems integrators are often highly specialised, and may only have relationships with one operator. 

Knowing your best route to market and with whom to partner is an essential first step for any successful market penetration programme here. And, for that, a local presence in Korea is vital.

Guillaume Weill
About the Author

Guillaume Weill

Based in Intralink’s Seoul office, Guillaume is Head of our Software & Cloud practice. He helps western companies expand in this sector in Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan. Guillaume brings broad experience across IoT connectivity platforms, Mobile Edge Computing and 5G, has a Masters in Semiconductors from Seoul National University and is fluent in Korean.

If you think Guillaume could help with your business plans, you can reach him at

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