Disappointed 5G Users Return to 4G
South Korea’s 5G mobile network, the first and largest 5G network in the world, has come under heavy criticism from consumers.
Launched in April 2019, and with over 9 million subscribers, South Korea constitutes approximately 80% of global 5G users, according to industry body GSMA.
Demand for 5G was initially driven by a combination of aggressive marketing and subsidies, but now South Korea is seeing users cancel contracts to return to older technologies due to poor connectivity, weak signals, and promised internet speeds not being met. Many consumers have also expressed frustration at the cost of 5G phones and the lack of specialised content.
"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 member of the National Assembly's Science, ICT, Broadcasting and Communications Committee, last month, referring to 4G long-term evolution services.
That figure represents 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 2020.
"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 became the world's first 5G provider, switching on the services of 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.
At first, the South Korean government and mobile carriers claimed that 5G could transmit data 20 times faster than LTE, allowing a two-hour movie to be downloaded in three seconds, compared to five minutes previously.
However, according to a survey conducted after the rollout and 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. Additionally, 5G coverage is limited largely to the Seoul capital region and six metropolitan cities.
Consumers have expressed their discontent, with 82 applications for mediation in 5G-related disputes submitted to the Korea Communications Commission's dispute mediation committee between January and August 2020, a sharp rise from just five in 2019, according to local media.
Slow and inaccessible 5G services have also now become a political issue for the government. The People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a non-governmental organisation, said that the government must find a way to compensate all 5G customers, rather than have the mobile carriers 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 first set up outdoor base stations, and then increase indoor base stations in office buildings and other facilities to expand 5G coverage. However, their investment has been slower than planned, in part due to an increase in new coronavirus infections.
In response to the complaints, an SK Telecom spokesperson commented, "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]."