I’ve Seen the 5G Future. So Far, I’m Not Impressed.

By Timothy Martin: WSJ Korea bureau chief, Nov 9, 2020. | Original Wall Street Journal article here.

In South Korea, there are roughly nine million 5G subscribers, making it most 5G-dense place on Earth. The rollout has been plagued by bad reception and a lack of consumer apps.

SEOUL — I have lived with 5G for a year, and I can now report this: Not much has changed. Literally. I’ve toggled it off in favor of the tried-and-true 4G LTE.

Even when I had 5G switched on, the coverage was random and elusive, rather than a technological expressway providing new ways to communicate, game or stream.

It was as if my phone had an identity crisis: In my apartment-building lobby? 5G. On my couch? 4G LTE. The same patchiness occurred during my bus commute and at the office. 5G was there, then not there. More often than not, my phone displayed the LTE logo in its upper right corner.

The network vacillating had consequences.YouTube videos darted from HD to grainy. Webpage loading stalled. Playing “Clash Royale,” the mobile strategy game, became impossible, as a relapse to 4G LTE meant a disconnection — and a restarted battle.

That’s why my 5G-enabled Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ is now set on 4G LTE—and I’m far from the only user who’s taking that step. We’re finding that 5G is like a buzzy superfood, feeling like a chore to use and leaving an indistinct aftertaste. Think flaxseeds or coconut water. I know 5G is supposed to be good for me. But when, and most strikingly, how?

I expect my experience is one that in the coming years will be replicated all over the world. South Korea is just getting there a little earlier. While few believe 5G will ultimately flop, it’s going to take awhile for this new world to have much of an effect. The slow roll out has a cascading effect.

Carriers and phone makers must offer further discounts to entice people to sign up, leaving companies with less cash to spruce up coverage or add features. A low user base means software companies have less incentive to dive in, meaning apps that could highlight why 5G is awesome are slower to emerge.

It seems like a Catch-22: Carriers can’t provide ubiquitous 5G until they’ve signed up enough subscribers to justify the massive investments in network gear.

5G is a Journey

So, who signs up for 5G when it’s only fleetingly available and unremarkable?

Well, in South Korea, many of us. I’m one of roughly nine million 5G subscribers in South Korea. As a percentage of the population, the country is the most 5G-dense place on Earth.

My frustrations are common among 5G early adopters, here and elsewhere, because coverage is far from comprehensive, says Will Townsend, a network-infrastructure expert at Moor Insights & Strategy, a tech consulting firm. “5G is a journey,” he says. “It’s not a light switch.”

South Korea’s users, due to telecom rationing and carriers slowing our access speeds, or throttling, are connected to 5G networks just 15% of the month, according to a June report from Opensignal Ltd., a mobile-analytics company.

And many, like me, are probably sticking with 4G because there’s no need to ruin a great thing. 5G here is supposed to be about four times faster than the network we already have —but South Korea already has the world’s fastest mobile speeds, at about 113 megabytes per second, according to Ookla’s global Speedtest data. That’s nearly three times quicker than the U.S.

Before 5G launched last year, I spoke with South Korea’s biggest telecom operators about what services to expect. I could stream five online channels simultaneously or watch a live sporting event in a virtual-reality room with a few friends. Those perhaps hold more appeal now as the virus keeps us at home—but, once again, the problem of spotty service arises. How can I stream five channels at once when the signal keeps dropping out?

Other advances that the operators promised, like smart cities, seem like tougher sells to a public already skeptical of tech solutions battling Covid-19. The smart-city concept is invasive: It would leverage 5G’s faster data-transferring speeds to deploy surveillance cameras that could catch jaywalkers or cars driving over the speed limit.

Without a killer 5G app, South Korea’s carrier strategy, at least for now, is a hard sell with pricing that seems great but isn’t that different than 4G—and often packaged with bizarre gifts. At a telecom store in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun neighborhood, an area populated with asset managers and diplomats, I recently stared at a table of freebies to entice people to sign up for 5G. A mini barbecue grill. Packages of instant ramen. Even boxes of tissue and toilet paper branded with the 5G logo of KT Corp. , the country’s second largest telecom operator.

“The ability to go wherever, do whatever you desire,” the tissue box reads. “Your Superpower.” Nearby, the door is plastered with notices that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20, released in mid-August, is now 50% off.

I am a KT subscriber. At about $50 a month, my 5G monthly bill is about the same as I paid for 4G LTE. I get 10 gigabytes of ultrafast data—guzzling 5G or 4G LTE, it doesn’t matter— but after that, my service dips to a mere 1 megabyte per second. There’s a certain shame element to this. When my phone connects to Wi-Fi, I’ve noticed the “5G” or “LTE” logos on my phone’s upper-right corner disappear. All that’s visible, I suppose thankfully, are the four bars.

All that glitters

Another unexpected downgrade: My 4G LTE plan had been one of the pricier options. It meant I held “VIP” status with KT, a distinction determined by a user’s annual payments. This entitled me to some perks, like a free movie ticket every month or half off my bill at certain restaurants. In total, there are six membership tiers, from the even loftier “VIP” down to general.

The readjustment to the 5G pricing structure meant I fell down a peg from VIP to Gold, as more-expensive options were added. The freebies are largely gone. Reading the fine print recently, I saw that if I stayed as a KT subscriber for six years, I would be bumped up a level. Having first joined in February 2017, my return to VIP status would come at some point in 2023..

Perhaps by then, 5G will have evolved beyond a speed-demon gimmick, with the eye popping horsepower finally harnessed. Maybe I can talk to a hologram. Or stop craning my neck, swiping on a smartphone because augmented-reality glasses now do the trick. Prior generations of wireless had slow starts, too. But we were eventually won over once the killer apps like Uber, Yelp and Instagram emerged.

But 5G’s leap will be harder, since our basic online needs are satiated. Not many people need to download a full season of “The Office” in seconds rather than minutes. Something wholly new will need to be hatched. What that is, like 5G’s initial performance, is tough to see.