5G in Korea: lessons for the developing world

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Korea intends to capture US$152 billion in economic output and create 600,000 jobs by 2026. What can the international development community learn from this?

South Korea’s 5G experts are coming to the World Bank Group for Korea Innovation Week February 18-20. They will help turn the spotlight on Korea’s policy framework that proved instrumental for the world’s premier 5G launch in 2019 and how developing countries can harness 5G technology.   

The fifth-generation wireless technology for digital cellular networks is the critical infrastructure that will shape national competitiveness. 5G is expected to harness US$12.3 trillion in revenue and generate 22 million jobs worldwide.  With faster speed, higher data capacity and ping time close to nil, 5G will underpin tactile applications which require human-like reflexes, such as telesurgery. What was once deemed impossible is just on the horizon, similar to how the application of electricity did not just stop at the light bulb.

As much as 5G will help facilitate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, capturing the full potential of the technology to revolutionize all sectors of the economy requires a paradigm shift. The most important aspect of this paradigm shift is the recognition of 5G as a core national infrastructure for countries everywhere.

In 2015, the South Korean Strategic 5G Promotion Committee, comprised of members from both public and private sectors, drafted the “5G+ Strategy”, which unequivocally aspires to spawn development in key industries that will generate new services and produce US$152 billion in gross national output and export volume of US$73 billion by 2026.

The second important aspect of the paradigm shift is in prioritizing spectrum allocation and implementing effective spectrum management. 5G carries information through an electromagnetic radio spectrum. The wider the spectrum, the more data can be transferred wirelessly. To switch to 5G, telecom operators need lots of spectrum at higher frequency bands that have never been used for mobile services.  Too often, regulators lack the capacity to make spectrum available in time. Moreover, the lack of transparency over future spectrum release diminishes investment appetite.

After successive consultations with the 5G Promotion Committee and a year before the 5G service launch, the Korean government held the world’s first 5G spectrum auction in 2018. Despite initial skepticism over the auction’s timing, the government was able to release enough spectrum to power the nation. Spectrum roadmaps and plans for new spectrum releases to meet the anticipated demands of the market were also communicated to boost investor confidence.    

The Korean government continues to improve measures to accelerate 5G adoption through direct and indirect measures. Shortly after Korea premiered 5G commercial services, it reached 2 million subscribers in just four months, faster than what was anticipated by mobile operators and outperforming previous 4G launches.

Following Korea’s success, a total of 34 countries and 61 operators launched 5G services by the end of 2019. Surprisingly, half of the 5G commercial launches in 2019 occurred in emerging markets and 35 new launches are planned by 2022.

Obviously, adopting and implementing a 5G network does not happen overnight. It takes a concerted effort from a range of stakeholders to garner investments, release spectrum, overhaul outdated policies, strike partnerships, develop digital skills, create demand, and nurture the innovation ecosystem. For emerging markets, lagging 4G coverage, device unaffordability, and issues hindering private sector investment may be hurdles that require assistance from the international community.

What are some of the best practices that Korean institutions could share? How can we draw from their experiences? We hope to see you during the Korea Innovation Week to find answers and build sustainable solutions together.


Je Myung Ryu

Senior Digital Development Specialist

Audrey Oh

Consultant, Digital Development Global Practice

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