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5G networks

South Korea to seize on world's first full 5G network

SK Group and KT lead the pack in new services like holographic streaming

A woman demonstrates a virtual reality device from SK Telecom that harnesses 5G networks at the MWC Barcelona trade show in Spain. (Photo courtesy of SK Telecom)

SEOUL -- South Korea intends to capitalize on becoming the first nation with a full-fledged 5G mobile network this month as businesses get a head start on new services such as holographic streaming and technologies leading to breakthroughs in manufacturing productivity.

Mobile carriers KT, SK Telecom, and LG Uplus will begin 5G service for compatible smartphones from Samsung Electronics as soon as late March. That will beat the U.S., where limited coverage for certain indoor locations is available but standard service accessible in fast-moving vehicles has yet to launch.

The 5G standard will be up to 100 times faster than 4G at 20 gigabits per second with almost no lag, opening up new possibilities for businesses. The standard will serve as the foundation of Industry 4.0 technologies -- the "Fourth Industrial Revolution" entailing smart and autonomous manufacturing -- which are expected to bring about $540 billion in economic benefits by 2030.

SK Telecom is developing a service that uses a special device to stream holographic video of pop duo TVXQ and other South Korean stars in partnership with SM Entertainment, said Lee Jae-kwang, head of business strategy. The company is also exploring new services involving concerts and fan interactions that will boost exports of South Korean content.

Holograms require about 1 gigabyte of data per square centimeter, more than a two-hour movie. SK tested the technology last year when South Korean soccer player Son Heung-min, who plays in London, appeared as a live hologram to talk with some elementary school fans back home. The realistic three-dimensional rendering brought some of the boys to tears. The company is also developing virtual reality content.

Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min scores their first goal against Borussia Dortmund on Feb. 13 in a Champions League match at Wembley Stadium in London.   © Reuters

KT is teaming up with Japanese, American, South Korean and European automakers to develop telematics technology with 5G that will improve the safety and convenience of cars. It has apparently partnered with Hyundai Motor and Nissan Motor.

Onboard devices will warn drivers several seconds before traffic lights change, for example. Cars and traffic signals will be able to exchange data, which will be helpful for preventing accidents in rainstorms with low visibility, according to KT. It is also developing car navigation systems that find shorter, more accurate routes by reflecting traffic data on maps in real time.

SK controls 48% of the country's mobile communications market by users, ahead of KT at 30% and LG Uplus at 22%. The trio have not disclosed pricing for 5G plans, but their investment in the new communications standard is thought to be up to 25 trillion won ($22.3 billion), more than 30% more than for 4G.

South Korea is known as a leader in asymmetric digital subscriber line broadband, which uses phone lines to deliver internet access, but is thought to be behind Japan and other countries in faster fiber-optic communications.

South Korea currently ranks fourth in the world for 5G-related technologies, according to the Korea Institute of S&T Evaluation and Planning. The country is about two years behind the U.S., which leads the world, in terms of technical skills.

South Korean experts point out, however, that while their technology for high-frequency waves used to deliver 5G is inferior to American counterparts, they lead the world in security technologies.

The country hopes that 5G can also help turn the tide against China, whose rising companies threaten South Korean chipmakers, automakers and shipbuilders with lower costs.

SK Group and KT began some corporate 5G service late last year, ahead of the launch for consumers. At SK's semiconductor factories, the group doubled efficiency by building a system that records components from several angles on its production line to detect faulty items.

KT is creating a system that reduces danger for workers at shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries. Cameras will monitor the movement of machines to warn nearby workers if there is a risk of collision. The company wants to use such smart factory products to increase competitiveness.

The biggest cheerleader for 5G in South Korea has been President Moon Jae-in. The Ministry of Science and ICT (information and communications technology), which has jurisdiction over 5G in the country, will spend more than 20 trillion won on research and development for the first time in 2019.

The government is working closely with Samsung Electronics to promote 5G in an effort to catch up with Chinese and European rivals on base stations as well as the U.S.'s Qualcomm on communications chips. Samsung expects to double base station sales to more than 4 trillion won this year compared with 2017 by supplying U.S. wireless carriers. South Korea's market for 5G communications is expected to reach $38.1 billion in 2026.

The government hopes 5G will give South Korea a springboard to become as technology-oriented as Japan. The president's office says Industry 4.0 will create 240 trillion won in new industries and 390 trillion won in economic benefits from improving the competitiveness of existing businesses.

But the economic environment in South Korea is bleak right now. The Bank of Korea forecasts real growth in gross domestic product to be 2.6% in 2019, falling from 2.7% in 2018 for its slowest pace in six years. The country's fertility rate also fell below 1, half of replacement level, in 2018, according to national statistics.

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