Mobile Devices

Cultural differences in 5G deployment

27 September 2019

Modern consumers are highly dependent on their smartphones and rely on them for — well, everything. This demand is pushing 5G deployments at a pace twice as fast as 4G deployments in 2009.

For context, in 2009 Facebook was just becoming dominant; Myspace was in major decline; Twitter accounted for less than 2% of social media traffic. Sites like Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Keek and Tinder did not exist. Netflix was primarily a DVD subscription business.

It is clear why 2009 cellular data demand pales in comparison to a decade later. It took another year and a half for 4G to catch on, and five years after deployment the 4G subscriber base in Asia and North America stood at 417 million.

By contrast, 5G subscriptions in Asia and North America are expected to reach 1.1 billion units by 2023, the fifth year of deployment, according to market research firm IHS Markit. That is almost triple the total for 4G.

“Customer’s relationship with wireless services has changed dramatically with each successive connectivity generation,” said Jason Leigh, research manager for mobility at International Data Corp (IDC). “But there are large gaps in that culture that will impact 5G adoption differently.”

5G use in South Korea vs. the U.S.

South Korean operators have already exceeded two million 5G subscribers since launching in April. Much of this is due to the relationship that Koreans have with their devices, Leigh said. Streaming and gaming on smartphones is more commonplace in South Korea than in the U.S. At home, the majority of the U.S. population streams content on a big screen television or computer.

SK Telecom, one of the largest communications providers in South Korea, has already earned more than one million subscriptions after launching 5G in April. South Korea was the first country to launch service and has rapidly accelerated plans for the technology, including developing pilot projects for emergency services, self-driving cars and next-generation television; SK also has struck a 5G roaming deal for customers in Switzerland.

The culture of South Korea is definitely driving the rise of 5G deployment in the country, Kim Hee-sup told Electronics360. Kim is vice president and head of communication center for SK Telecom.

These consumers are using 5G to watch video streaming services enriched with AR and VR technologies, as well as play high-quality cloud games, where the fast speed and low latency of 5G takes these experiences “to the next level,” Kim said.

Hee-sup added that SK’s 5G customers are using 40 GB of data per month, which is four times that of 4G LTE users. By the end of the year, SK Telecom expects to surpass two million 5G subscribers.

Are Americans waiting for the 'iPhone moment'?

When LTE launched, it took a killer device like the iPhone, in which functionality finally caught up with network performance, for the network to really take off. Other smartphones followed suit, offering a PC-like user experience, but in mobile devices in the hands of consumers.

“5G, for all its impressive improvements in speed, latency and network density performance, is somewhat uninteresting by itself,” Leigh said. “It is only when we change our perspective from 5G as a service by itself, to 5G as an enabler of other services, that some really innovative things can be done.”

Leigh does not expect current apps for smartphones to be significantly impacted by 5G’s attributes. However, app development and device or interface evolution could enhance the appeal and adoption of 5G smartphones.

The 5G takeoff point may reside in new devices, or it could be 5G’s contributions to technologies like artificial intelligence or cloud and edge computing services, which will impact businesses more than consumers, according to Leigh.

5G network operators also have the most to gain. Historically, it has been the first adopters of new technology who gain a competitive advantage.

“It behooves mobile operators to hasten the path to market for 5G,” Leigh said. “Additionally, the development of what I’ll call dual-purpose equipment means that operators can maintain/update their LTE network with equipment that is able to switch to 5G with essentially a software patch. The proverbial two birds with one stone.”

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