South Korea, essentially the first country to launch 5G at large scale, has succeeded by adopting an aggressive strategy, say experts who believe that its progressive approach has paid off.
“There is a saying: ‘build it and they will come’,” says Fredrik Jungermann of mobile data analytics company Tefficient. “That’s what the Koreans are doing [with 5G]. They are not like the UK operators, very careful in rolling things out and saving on the capital expenditure. They are really building, as quickly as they can and using a lot of money on it. We can see it pays off.”
While subscriptions started modestly at just below 6,000 Tb when services launched in April, latest figures from South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT suggest a fivefold increase to just over 30,000 Tb in June. June uptake also triggered a drop for the first time since January in the amount of 4G data traffic. The new data reveals that video services are driving 5G, accounting for more than half of traffic in a similar way to 4G.
Jungermann is surprised by the speed of adoption. “Korean operators have successfully managed to articulate the benefits of 5G customers,” he said. “They are buying it even though it is more expensive”. The way 5G is marketed is via straightforward limited and unlimited data plans. A limited 5G plan costs around 55,000 Korean won (around £37.5) per month, according to Jungermann, who visited Korea in mid-July to meet the 5G industry and observed the shops and showroom of the 5G three operators. Unlimited plans start at around 80,000 won (£54.50).
According to Jungermann, the Korean pricing model has worked. “I think the price strategy is good. KT, one of the operators, has done it cleverly. They drew an equal sign between 5G and unlimited, so they are introducing a truly unlimited plan together with 5G. They have four 5G plans in total. Three of them are unlimited and have no speed throttling beyond certain limits. That’s good. As unlimited plans are more expensive they drive the total revenue. People that are interested in 5G will most likely also upgrade”.
As for the question of what drives 5G penetration, he says it is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Is it 5G that drives unlimited plans or is it unlimited plans that drive 5G? “It really doesn’t matter, either way it helps the operators to sell it”.
It’s not just price that presents a barrier to attracting customers. Bad publicity, at least initially, was also part of the puzzle of how to best sell 5G.
Jungermann says that there was quite a bit of negative sentiment visible in the Korean media.
“Some people said it is over-hyped, but they still know about 5G. And a portion has actually bough it now.” Nonetheless, the country managed to gain 1.3 million 5G subscribers by the end of June, confirming that 5G is taking off. Latest rumors have it, according to the Korean trade press and not yet verifiable via official statistics, that the 2 million 5G subscriber mark has already been broken.
“I also think it is eye-opening how much usage there is, given how little coverage [of 5G] there is, so far. There is a lot of data going through 5G,” Jungermann said. Figures show that just three months after the launch, penetration of 5G surged to 6 per cent of total mobile data traffic in Korea. That’s significant, because 5G accounts only for 2 per cent of subscribers.
South Korea’s success in introducing 5G comes after a mastering 4G, which Jungermann calls “already the world’s absolutely best 4G network”. All tests would confirm this, he says.
On its way to garnering more 5G subscribers, the government is positioning itself as a global leader in communication technology. Its dominance in 5G is no surprise. “Korea as a nation is ambitious. They set themselves the goal to have about the 20 per cent market share globally when it comes for example to things like network gear,” said Jungermann.