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Telecommunication

Poor 5G connectivity disappoints South Korean users

Over 560,000 consumers return to 4G as applications for dispute mediation rise

South Korea's telecom companies were the first in the world to introduce commercial 5G services, but they have failed to meet consumer expectations.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- Despite being the first in the world to provide fifth-generation communications services, South Korea is now seeing consumers cancel contracts to return to older technologies due to poor connectivity.

"As many as 562,656 people have switched from 5G to LTE," said Hong Jung-min, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and a member of the National Assembly's Science, ICT, Broadcasting and Communications Committee, on Oct. 7, referring to fourth-generation long-term evolution services.

That number represented as much as 6.5% of total 5G subscribers at three domestic mobile carriers -- SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus -- at the end of August. South Korea rolled out its 5G networks in April 2019.

"Changing a contract requires troublesome procedures, but nevertheless, consumers cancel 5G contracts because they are disgusted with poor quality, inadequate coverage and high fee structures," Hong said. "Telecom operators should make efforts to improve the quality and customer satisfaction of their 5G services."

South Korea beat the U.S. to win the honor of being the world's first 5G provider by switching on of services by the three mobile carriers more than an hour ahead of America's Verizon Communications on April 3, 2019.

Since then, consumers' expectations for 5G have turned for the worse.

"What has changed with 5G? The [phone] battery runs down faster," a user told Nikkei. He thought a malfunction in his smartphone caused the shorter battery life, and brought it to the manufacturer's service center, where he was told that switching between 5G and LTE consumed a lot of power.

As for speed, the main 5G selling point, the user said: "It does not connect to the 5G network as quickly as I want. To tell the truth, LTE is enough for me because I don't use the smartphone to exchange large volumes of data."

At first, the South Korean government and mobile carriers claimed that 5G can transmit data 20 times faster than LTE and allows a two-hour movie to be downloaded in three seconds, compared with five minutes before.

But according to a survey since the rollout published by the Ministry of Science and ICT, the average 5G download speed of the three carriers was only about four times faster than that of LTE. Also, 5G coverage is limited largely to the Seoul capital region and six metropolitan cities.

Consumers are certainly unhappy -- 82 applications for mediation in 5G-related disputes were submitted to the Korea Communications Commission's dispute mediation committee from the start of this year to August, up sharply from just five last year, according to local media.

Slow and inaccessible 5G services have also now become a political issue for the government.

People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a nongovernmental organization, said the government must work out ways to allow all customers to be compensated rather than for mobile carriers to pay out only to the customers who have approached the mediation committee.

Byeon Jae-il, a lawmaker from the Democratic Party of Korea, said the government must correct the impression it has given to the people on the speed of 5G. To transmit data at a speed of 20 gigabits per second, or 20 times that of LTE, requires a frequency of 28 gigahertz.

That would require service providers to install a large number of base stations because of radio wave properties, but for cost reasons, the three local carriers have only adopted the 3.5-gigahertz band that requires fewer base stations. The maximum speed for this frequency is only 1.9 gigabits per second -- a fact that Byeon wants the government to relay to the public.

The mobile carriers had planned to set up outdoor base stations first and then increase indoor base stations in office buildings and other facilities to expand 5G coverage, but their investment has been slower than planned, in part due to an increase in new coronavirus infections.

A spokesperson for SK Telecom said in response to consumer discontent: "The situation was similar when LTE services were spreading. It will take two to three years to change the nationwide communications network into a next-generation one. We informed customers about this since we heard complaints in the initial stage [of the new services]."

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