|SK Telecom employees install a 5G base station at Suseo Station in Seoul. Courtesy of SKT|
By Kim Hyun-bin
On April 3, 2019, local telecom companies became the first to commercialize the fifth-generation (5G) network, but even after a year of service the technology is far from perfect due to a lack of 5G base stations and a limited budget.
The lack of budget gives telecom companies no choice but to concentrate the installation of 5G base stations in populated cities with high traffic, leaving rural areas without connection to the service and further widening the technological gap between regions.
The situation is similar for other countries, so many experts claim the government needs to step in to better enhance the still-unstable network. The United States and Japan provides various types of financial assistance and specifically tax exemptions for telecom companies that set up base stations in rural areas to reduce the technological gap.
"Just like the U.S. and Japan, the government needs to be more supportive by helping to fund telecom companies to install more base stations or provide tax breaks to encourage companies to swiftly install the infrastructure, but our government does neither," a senior executive at a major telecom company said.
According to the Ministry of Science and ICT, there were 35,851 5G base stations installed as of April last year, but that number has increased three-fold and currently stands at 108,897; however, it only accounts for a mere 12 percent of the number of LTE stations nationwide.
Compounding the issue is the fact that to provide similar coverage as the LTE network does, currently providing seamless coverage throughout the nation, there needs to be around four 5G base stations for each LTE station, which creates station base station management complications for service providers; SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus.
In addition, COVID-19 has caused major setbacks in installing base stations. The three carriers aimed for 5G coverage in 1,000 buildings by the end of last year, but faced setbacks as the coronavirus spread, limiting their capability and leading to only 460 installations, as scheduled meetings between telecom companies and building owners fell apart due to the outbreak.
"To have seamless 5G coverage inside the buildings there needs to be in-building coverage installed, that is why many users experience difficulty connecting to the 5G network as there is a lack of base stations within the infrastructure," a telecom official said.
Additionally, the government was also continuing to turn a blind eye towards improving the network, while lawmakers were politicizing agendas related to the 5G network for their own benefits.
Politicians have been focused on reducing the cost of the 5G mobile plan to appeal to voters at parliamentary audits or for the sake of their election campaigns, for which the topic could once again be utilized as the general election is scheduled for mid-April.
If the government and lawmakers were more focused on enhancing the 5G network and infrastructure instead of putting all their efforts into cutting cost of the 5G mobile plan, industry experts believe more people could actually benefit from the cause.
The fact is that South Korea is leading the global race to deploy 5G with 85 of more than 100 cities in the country now connected, according to the latest figures published by VIAVI, a market researcher. President Moon Jae-in's plans to leverage 5G as a "next engine" technology could create up to 600,000 new jobs. The 5G-based export industry is predicted to reach $73 billion by 2026.