By Kayla Matthews, who is a technology journalist and writer in Pittsburgh, PA.
Collectively, there’s been a lot of hubbub about 5G wireless networks over the last few years, especially from major providers. Despite the talking, nothing has really come to pass, at least until recently. The first true fifth-generation wireless network is not launching in the States or even in Europe, but in South Korea.
It may not seem like such a big deal, but the digital future essentially hinges on the roll-out of the next big wireless network. Every single platform with wireless connectivity — from refrigerators and coffee makers to self-driving vehicles — will be dependent on the powerful network. It is said that 5G will need to support millions upon millions of devices, which is true as internet connectivity is now essentially baked into every device imaginable.
The good news is that while South Korea is the first to launch a 5G network, this is simply the first of many steps in the long process of upgrading network connectivity, how it’s used and how it affects the nation.
It has started to happen in the U.S. but not on the same scale as South Korea’s network. For example, Verizon launched a 5G fixed network for home users some time ago.
How Is South Korea Ready?
South Korea or more specifically Seoul has long been a hotbed of technical innovation. It’s no surprise then that they’re one of the first to roll out this new, high-speed generation network. Beyond the usability and connectivity, it’s also tied directly into the country’s economic growth.
As the country moves to adopt technology on widespread levels, the new network will underpin most of that operation. It’s because 5G is a monumental upgrade on the previous generation of wireless networks, allowing for near-instantaneous connections, especially for mobile devices. Proponents estimate that 5G will be 20 times faster than our existing 4G networks (with speeds of up to 1.4Gbps), and that’s a quote from Qualcomm on “initial median” speeds which means over time the network will grow to be even faster.
Three local carriers including KT, LG UPlus and SK Telecom switched on 5G services officially on December 1, 2018. Only enterprise users could access the new connectivity, however, until the end of March 2019 where it was made available to everyone.
KT’s vice-president Lee Pil-Jae predicts that over three million South Koreans will have made the leap to 5G by the end of the year.
How Do 5G Technologies Work?
One major question that comes to mind when discussing the next-generation of wireless technologies is how they differ from legacy models? What makes 5G so different from 4G?
Ultimately, it depends on the network and what the carrier does to upgrade the signal — there are several different elements that go into the faster speeds. For starters, the network must tap into new radio frequencies with low or minimal distortion which allows for faster, more reliable connections. Then, the infrastructure and equipment must be either developed or upgraded to support the new network. That means outfitting transmission and radio towers with hardware to support the new frequencies, as well as the equipment to sustain faster speeds.
Even after all of that is done it’s not a simple matter of flicking on a switch and bringing 5G to everyone. The roll-out will be gradual, there will be a few hiccups and every wireless carrier will handle the upgrade differently.
The Many Challenges of Next-Gen Wireless
As you’d expect with such a complicated roll-out, there are challenges and obstacles that stand in the way of adoption. South Korea is no stranger to these challenges, having dealt with their roll-out which experienced many delays. The technology was originally intended to launch later in March.
Some of the issues, however, had nothing to do with the technology itself. Both the local government and telecoms providers could not agree on appropriate pricing for the new wireless network(s). Furthermore, only a handful of available smartphones can actually take advantage of the increased 5G network speeds.
SK Telecom’s originally priced quote of 70,000 won (about $62 USD) per month was rejected by the South Korean Ministry. The government felt it was much too high, despite the fact that SK promised to offer more affordable prices as adoption ramped up.
Beyond smartphones, other devices will need to be outfitted to handle the new wireless frequencies, as well. It will take some time before manufacturers release supporting products, and even longer for consumers to scoop them up and begin using them.
This highlights the long-term approach to 5G rollout which stretches far beyond the wireless networks and connectivity. There’s also the matter of pricing, maintenance, consumer adoption and finally the development of new devices and technologies that can sync up with the network.
Anywhere else that would see the upgrade to 5G — including the United States — will run into the same problems when the time comes.