KT, the second largest mobile operator in South Korea, announced plans to start commercial 5G service in March 2019, which will make it one of the first operators in the world to launch the next generation mobile technology, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Oh Seong-mok, president of KT’s network business division, said at a press briefing it will launch 5G service combining true mobility and nationwide coverage.

The operator, with a 31 per cent market share, said it will not use a fixed-wireless version of 5G, which US-based Verizon announced plans to roll out in three to five markets by the end of this year.

Verizon’s rival AT&T said in early January it aims to bring mobile 5G to a dozen cities in late 2018, likely making it the world’s first operator to offer 5G for mobile customers. Up until AT&T’s announcement, it had appeared US operators were focused on fixed-wireless 5G launches for 2018 rather than mobile.

KT’s announcement yesterday (22 March) comes despite the head of its 5G business unit, Lee Yong-gyoo, stating at Mobile World Congress last month it is not yet ploughing ahead with large-scale investment in the technology.

“It’s not clear what the business case is, not clear at all,” he said.
Lee did say at the time KT’s aim was still to be first out of the 5G traps in South Korea with commercial services but wouldn’t commit on when that might be.

KT deployed pre-standard 5G at the Winter Olympics last month, delivering 360-degree VR and a time slice function – a 5G-dependent video streaming technology which allows viewers to control the time, target and angle of the content being viewed.

Challenges ahead
Lee Jong-sik, head of KT’s 5G taskforce, indicated, however, that 5G equipment used in Pyeongchang would need to be ripped out since it was not fully aligned with the first 5G New Radio specifications ratified by the 3GPP in December 2017.

The aim of having a nationwide 5G network in just a year is certainly aggressive, and industry analysts suggest it will need to focus initially on matching LTE’s reach in major cities. Another challenge will be handset availability, with the first models supporting the next generation technology coming toward the end of this year and the first half of 2019.

Huawei said last month it plans to launch a 5G smartphone using its own chipset in late Q3 or Q4.