South Korean cellcos in 5G launch co-op shocker!

5G services korea
Image credit: Scharfsinn /

ITEM: South Korea’s three cellcos – SK Telecom, KT and LG U+ – have announced plans to launch 5G services in March 2019. And all on the same day.

According to the Yonhap news agency, South Korea’s minister of Science and ICT Yoo Young-min said the CEOs of all three operators agreed at a meeting this week to cooperate and launch their 5G networks simultaneously. The exact date hasn’t been specified yet, but it will be dubbed “Korea 5G Day”.

One reason behind the simultaneous launch, reports Yonhap:

“It is important for mobile carriers to avoid heated competition for the title of world’s ‘first’ 5G service provider in order for South Korea to become a nation that can commercialize the 5G service for the first time in the world,” Yoo said.

Which is an interesting approach when you look at other markets where operators are absolutely falling over each other to be the first on the block to launch 5G services whether actual 5G-compatible devices are available or not.

Three operators in the Middle East (Etisalat, Ooredoo and STC) have already launched 5G services – apparently just for the bragging rights – while in Australia, Telstra and Optus are in a PR battle over who is offering the most authentic 5G demos. Telstra’s promotion of “5G-enabled hot spots” (which turned out to be ordinary Wi-Fi hot spots with 5G backhaul links) is particularly hilarious. And in the US, Verizon, AT&T and T Mobile US are trying to out-5G each other, even though the first 5G services are probably going to be hot-spot pucks and glorified home broadband. (And let’s not forget AT&T’s infamous ‘5G evolution’ campaign from last year that kinda sorta sounded like they were rolling out 5G now ahead of everyone else, but actually it was LTE-A fortified with carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO and 256 QAM, but it was upgradeable to 5G later, which is practically the same thing if you ask A&T’s marketing department.)

Meanwhile, in India – whose government is determined to be among the 5G early frontrunners – state telco BSNL’s chief general manager Anil Jain swore to reporters this week that BSNL will absolutely positively roll out 5G in India before anyone else, reports ET Telecom:

Asked on the timeline, he said, “We can’t give any timeline. Though, world over people are talking to launch 5G by June 2020. But, there are some expectations that we may see 5G (launch) in 2019 itself.”

It’s not clear if he’s talking about India or the world in general in that last sentence. But no matter – the point is that BSNL will launch 5G in India first:

“The moment 5G is launched anywhere in the world, most probably 5G will be launched in India also. I can use the word ‘nobody’ before BSNL will launch (5G services) in the country” …

5G services vs the “me first” mentality

Of course, we’ve been through all this before with 3G and 4G, where operators scrambled madly to skunk the competition and launch their next generation networks to great fanfare, and then worry about stuff like coverage, device compatibility, services, etc. Customers may have grumbled, but the stakeholders were delighted, so close enough.

So – despite all the talk at trade shows about industry transformation and changing mindsets to enable new digital ways of doing business – we shouldn’t expect the telco mentality towards 5G to be any different. Or at least their marketing department chiefs, who are apparently still living in the late 90s somewhere.

Which is why the decision by South Korean cellcos to avoid the “me first” mentality is so striking to me. And refreshing.

Granted, you’ve got the government stepping in as a proactive peacemaker. And all three operators are already cooperating on shared 5G infrastructure. Those are two factors we don’t currently see in markets where cellcos are engaging in loud PR shenanigans.

Of course, even then, the South Korean announcement isn’t totally devoid of MeFirst-ism if you read that first block quote carefully. As Korea JoonAng Daily puts it:

Minister [Yoo] asked for continuous cooperation between the carriers to ensure that Korea becomes the world’s first country to commercialize the network on that day.

So even where operators may not be trying to score bragging rights for launching 5G first, their governments may be. That’s certainly the case with India, and is also the case with the US government, although they arguably didn’t care until they found out China might beat them to it, which somehow mutated into the idea that if China rolls out 5G first it will control the internet or something.

(To be fair, government interest in accelerating 5G development isn’t always about prestige – it’s also about attracting foreign investment.)

Anyway, the South Korea example is a good one that I wish other cellcos would follow – maybe not to the point of literally launching on the same day, but at least by refusing to make “we launched 5G services before those other guys” a selling point. Competition is great, but I’m reasonably sure most customers don’t give a toss if your whiz-bang 5G service is the first one out of the gate.

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