South Korea – leading the mobile way

It seems like only five minutes ago we were welcoming 4G LTE, heralding its arrival as the ultimate in next generation connectivity and seeing it as the answer to all our mobile broadband prayers. But while the majority of the world sat back and enjoyed unprecedented mobile broadband speeds and reliability, the industry’s true trendsetter, South Korea, was already off onto the next leg of the journey – and making plans for 5G.

South Korea has long led the way in the mobile broadband space and was the first market in the world to achieve 100 percent 4G penetration throughout the entire country. Compare this to around 25 percent 4G penetration in the USA and Japan and the difference comes into stark focus. Cloud computing apps and services have been at the hub of the massive spike in mobile data demand in Korea, which has seen data usage increase by between 300 and 400 times.

Demand remains huge and the Korean government has, just as it did with 4G and its 3 main domestic mobile operators SK Telecom, Korea Telecom and LG UPlus, committed to its mobile future in a big way. Government last year said it would invest around 1.6 trillion won (approximately $1.5 billion US) to help with 5G rollouts. There are also plans in place to deploy core 5G technologies around the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018. Commercial rollouts are then targeted for 2020, and with the development of a new 5G standard, Korea hopes that its 5G solution will be up to 1,000 times faster than current offerings.

Perfect for the Internet of Things

4G has enabled the birth of the Internet of Things (IoT), allowing devices and machines all over the world to communicate to each other in real time – but 5G will take this to the next level. South Korea is a pacesetter here too, having recognised both the commercial and cultural possibilities of connected living. Because spectrum remains very congested at present, 5G will mean more channels and more channels available which equates to higher bandwidth, lower latency and reduced power consumption over the mobile network - meaning more devices able to work effectively over the IoT.

Korea has recognised this and provider SK Telecom launched a partnership in late 2014 bringing ‘smart furniture’ to market, by which white goods and other domestic furnishings are networked and will operate in a similar connected way to smartphones and tablets now. The Korean government has committed here too, investing around 37 billion won across the coming 5 years to drive revenues from the IoT. But there are other 5G-related initiatives afoot as Korea looks to take the next great leap forward.

Partnerships for prosperity

In mid-2014 the European Union (EU) announced a new partnership with South Korea to help the EU drive its own 5G program forward, fast. Again the intent is to not only enable citizens with faster than ever mobile connectivity, it is also about powering the IoT, something Europe sees as vital to its continued prosperity and development.

Europe enjoyed great success in mobile terms in the 1990s but since then has fallen behind both the USA and particularly Asia, as countries like South Korea made 4G networks and ubiquitous 4G connectivity – there is even a reliable 4G signal on Seoul’s underground subway trains - such a priority.

This partnership is the first of its kind for the EU, and its engagement with South Korea underlines the Asian nation’s position as the respected world leader in mobile connectivity. The EU/Korea research partnership is designed to see Europe have a 5G standard and rollout timetable in place by the end of 2015.

The next Silicon Valley?

In addition to sharing its expertise with the EU, South Korea has taken what probably now seems like a very logical next move – it wants to create its own version of California’s Silicon Valley. With a young, tech-savvy and mobile-addicted generation at its heart, Korea’s new start-up industry has started with a bang and is gathering momentum.

VCs from overseas are not taking notice and looking to invest in Korea’s fledgling online game developers and social media apps. Bloomberg recently named South Korea the number one most innovative country in its Global Innovation Index, another feather in Korea’s cap. The ‘can do’ nature of the young generation in Korea, plus the buy-in from government and now the interest from foreign investors married to (by far) the world’s leading mobile connectivity looks like a recipe for success and excitement in the next couple of years.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.