South Korea 5G scores high marks for both speed, coverage - RootMetrics

RootMetrics put out new analysis that determined South Korea’s 5G networks are setting a strong example for the rest of the globe.

South Korea has been a fast-mover on 5G, with three mobile operators initially turning on service in 2019 after an earlier auction of key mid-band, as well as millimeter wave spectrum.

The report (PDF) covers testing results between May 6 and May 17, 2021, with 5G across the three operators in four major cities including Busan, Gwangju, Incheon and Seoul. RootMetrics performs drive testing, including 42 indoor locations and more than 19,000 tests in Seoul, with more than 9,000 tests and 22 indoor areas in the three other cities. Operators KT, LG Uplus, and SK Telecom all showed improvements in coverage and delivered fast median download speeds above 400 Mbps in each city.

In Seoul, for example, RootMetrics reported nearly ubiquitous 5G coverage, with each operator reaching at least 93.2% availability (up from at least 71.3% in the second half of 2020). LG Uplus led the pack at 95.2%, followed closely by KT with 95% 5G availability.

Seoul had the highest 5G availability worldwide compared to other regions – followed by AT&T in New York City (74.1%), Swisscom in Zurich (45.6%) and EE in London (43.7%).

South Korea’s city of Gwangju saw availability dip to 75.4% for KT and 66.2% for SKT, but the report noted consumers are still likely to find 5G service the vast majority of the time in those locations.

“Not only are South Korean operators providing users with broad access to 5G, fast speeds, and low latency, they also continue to lead the worldwide 5G race. Moreover, we’ve seen 5G performance in South Korea improve every time we’ve visited the country,” wrote the report authors.

And while operators in the U.S. have rolled out broad 5G coverage, by and large super-fast speeds are limited to small pockets. Recent testing by Tutela found the experience of U.S. users with 5G handsets in mature deployment markets wasn’t noticeably improved compared to 4G.

In RootMetrics results, the “slowest” overall median download speed for all operators (across technologies, including 5G, mixed mode and non-5G) was still a speedy 436.3 Mbps from LG Uplus in the city of Busan. The operator also nabbed the fastest median download speed, hitting 664.2 Mbps in Incheon, and the second fastest at 640.7 Mbps in Seoul.

RootMetrics South Korea 1H2021 5G speeds
Overall median download speeds across four cities tested in South Korea. (RootMetrics)

Interestingly, LG Uplus had less 5G bandwidth on average (80 MHz) than KT and SK Telecom (100 MHz each), but RootMetrics said it made the most efficient use of the spectrum.

“LG U+ had 20% less bandwidth than the other operators but registered the fastest speeds in Incheon and Seoul,” the report noted.  

At its fastest speed, a 600MB video could be downloaded in 8 seconds. And for that speed, RootMetrics broke out the 5G New Radio contribution in networks using EN-DC technology, with NR contributing the vast majority, at 646.4 Mbps.

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“The key benefit of EN-DC is that it allows mobile network operators to send data to your 5G device over both 4G (LTE) and 5G (NR) radio air interface from the network. The addition of 5G (NR) to existing 4G (LTE) spectrum increases the overall data speed available to end users,” report explains.

In the U.S., T-Mobile is currently deploying 2.5 GHz spectrum for 5G – aiming to cover 200 million people by year’s end. Just this week celebrated hitting the 300 million mark for coverage with its low-band Extended Range 5G using spectrum in the 600 MHz band.

AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, are gearing up for mid-band deployments later this year as the first batch of C-band spectrum in the 3.7 GHz range is cleared and becomes available.

RootMetrics noted the impact of mid-band spectrum auctions.

Although South Korea remains ahead of global competition, “with recent spectrum auctions wrapping up in both the US and UK, we could soon see better 5G results going forward. That additional spectrum—much of it speedy mid-band spectrum—could level the playing field over time, but for now, South Korea remains the leader,” the report concluded.