Slow rollout buffers South Korea's 5G promise

STORY: South Korea was the first country to launch a 5G mobile network in 2019.

It heralded a warp-speed technological transformation toward things like self-driving cars and smart cities.

Three years on though and the lofty promises are unfulfilled.

Some 45% of the population of South Korea is now on 5G - one of the highest rates globally.

$20 billion spent on network upgrades boosted connection speeds five-fold over 4G technology.

But telecommunications companies have not been willing to invest the estimated $370 billion needed to ramp speeds by 20 times.

That's because the demand is not there yet.

App makers have yet to roll out services like autonomous driving that would need faster connections.

Customers find they can watch Netflix and surf the net well enough with their existing lower-speed 5G upgrade.

South Korean telcos have built around 215,000 5G base stations, but only 2% of them can handle the faster speeds.

And it would take a lot more base stations per square mile than for 4G or the 5G lite option.

It's the same picture in established fifth generation countries like the U.S. and China.

The lesson for others racing toward 5G seems to be: curb your enthusiasm.

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