Just an hour before midnight Wednesday, an unexpected telecom subscription event took place in South Korea. The country’s three mobile carriers registered several people as the “world’s first” subscribers to the fifth-generation cellular network.
The midnight event was hurriedly scheduled amid reports Verizon was planning its own world premiere of the 5G commercial rollout. At 1 a.m. (Seoul time), the US mobile carrier announced its customers in Chicago and Minneapolis had become “the first in the world” to enjoy 5G services.
On Thursday morning, the Korean government issued a statement claiming to have beaten Verizon by two hours to begin the world’s first 5G commercial services. The event was initially planned for Friday when the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G hits the market.
“Last night, we excelled over our competitors to offer the world’s first 5G commercial services,” said the Ministry of Science and ICT. “It has proven once again Korea’s status as a global IT powerhouse.”
Samsung's 5G smartphone logo. Yonhap
Korea and the US have been engaged in a fierce battle over the title of becoming the first country in the world to offer commercial 5G services, though it is a title difficult to verify due to the lack of an international mediation body.
While there is the Global System for Mobile Communications, representing the interests of network operators around the world, it remains to be seen whether the organization will jump in to make the call.
For now, South Korea seems to have beaten the US in registering 5G subscribers, though the Samsung smartphone commercial rollout for the general public came after Verizon launched its service with Motorola’s “upgradable” 5G smartphone.
The rivalry egged on by the Seoul government has been received with forced enthusiasm from the industry, amid complaints the government has gone out of its way to clinch the “world’s first” title.
“It’s just a show,” said an official from a local telecommunications firm, who asked to remain anonymous. “Technically speaking, it is against Korean regulations for mobile subscription services to open outside of operational hours (set between 9 a.m. and around 8 p.m.).”
According to industry watchers here, the ICT Ministry urged SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus to begin 5G subscriptions for selected customers, as the companies had already determined pricing plans beginning from 55,000 won per month ($48.40).
Korea has long touted its capabilities in delivering the world’s first 5G commercial services -- as it did at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics -- but the US has ramped up efforts to get ahead of competitors amid intensified rivalry with China.
Last month, Verizon surprised the Korean government by pledging to begin commercial 5G services on April 11 with Motorola’s 5G Moto Mod. Caught off its guard by the move, Samsung Electronics decided to rush the release of its Galaxy S10 5G to April 5.
“It’s all about marketing strategy by Verizon,” said James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “What is important is network infrastructure and handset technology. Not the title of who launches the service in the first place.”
The two countries are not yet ready for standalone 5G services capable of providing nationwide coverage. According to Kim, the US is expected to take longer than South Korea for full-fledged services, given geographic differences and penetration rates.
Some industry watchers here have complained of the government overreacting, with Verizon’s hype over 5G services powered by “upgradable” smartphones. They argued that Motorola’s Moto Z3 cannot be defined as a standalone 5G handset as is Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G.
While the Galaxy S10 5G is exclusively designed for the hyperspeed 5G network and is available at every Korean mobile carrier, Verizon subscribers can only access 5G services by using a backpack-like accessory called the 5G Moto Mod.
“I don’t understand why the whole country has been so preoccupied with Verizon’s move,” said an industry watcher familiar with the government’s 5G initiative. “The government should have let local telecom companies deal with it.”