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5G networks

Fast but patchy: Trying South Korea's new 5G service

Reliability problems cloud benefit of quicker download speeds

With 5G, the hope is that users will be able to download a two-hour movie in three seconds, down from five minutes now. (Photo by Kenichi Yamada)

SEOUL -- Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S10 5G on Friday became the world's first commercially available smartphone with inbuilt fifth-generation technology as South Korea switched on its 5G network, but there seemed to be little consumer enthusiasm for the experience in the capital city of Seoul.

At a branch of telecom giant SK Telecom, the clerk behind the counter said only one reporter had signed up for the Samsung phone.

Other users may be waiting for the technology to mature. A quick test inside the store confirmed that 5G is, as advertised, faster than its 4G predecessor -- about four times faster. Using an app to measure network speeds -- and measuring three times -- a Galaxy S10 5G came in at 193 megabits per second, while a 2018 Galaxy S9 using 4G clocked in at 47 megabits per second.

When downloading a popular 1.9 gigabyte game, 4G finished the task in 6 minutes and 28 seconds. 5G did so in just 1 minute and 51 seconds. That is faster, but it is a far cry from the claims that 5G would be 20 times faster.

The experience changed dramatically when stepping outside the store. The 5G service cut out frequently. When walking around Seoul, the icon showing that the phone had tapped into the 4G network was lit up more than 30% of the time. On the steps leading into the subway station, it was difficult to find a 5G signal. Underground, the phone repeatedly switched to 4G.

Generally the network is faster outdoors. Measuring the speed three times again in front of the same municipal offices, 5G clocked in at an average of 430 megabits per second.

SK Telecom said that it would raise those speeds to 2.7 gigabits in 2019, and 7 gigabits in 2020. KT said that it wants 10% of smartphone users to be using 5G by the end of 2019.

With 5G, the hope is that users will be able to download a two-hour movie in three seconds, down from five minutes now. But that is a long way from the 5G service that was launched in South Korea on Friday.

Analysts say it will take more time to judge how robust and stable the 5G network is because it is in transitional period.

The problem is that the high speed networks are being put in place, but they are not finished and lack stability. Moreover they share infrastructure with 4G long-term evolution networks.

"We will not know its functions completely unless [stand-alone] 5G network is implemented nationwide," said James Kim, research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

The lack of a nationwide service meant that LG Uplus had to offer a demonstration of 5G's possibilities rather than the real experience in its popup store in Gangnam, southern Seoul. Customers were offered a prerecorded virtual reality concert by Nature, the nine-member K-pop girl group.

"It requires many more base stations to offer VR services many people in the same place in real time," said Kwon Myung-jin, a spokesman for LG Uplus. 

Nikkei staff writer Connor Cislo contributed to this article.

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