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LG Uplus builds on early 5G lead

In April 2019, LG Uplus became one of the first operators in the world to launch 5G. The South Korean telco's CTO Choi Taek-Jin explains how this early lead was achieved and discusses plans for future rollout.

By Liu Rengui
Jan 2020

LG Uplus was one of the first operators in the world to launch 5G and has attracted nearly a million 5G subscribers, reaching 6 percent customer penetration in just 6 months, exceeding its 4G market share. The LG Uplus CTO Choi Taek-Jin reveals the secret of the telco’s success: an excellent network and diverse 5G services.

In April 2019, LG Uplus became one of the first operators in the world to launch 5G, with the country’s three carriers switching on consumer services for the next-generation technology on the same day.

Just five months later and LG Uplus has already signed up 875,000 5G subscribers at the end of September, exceeding its 22-percent market share in 4G. Already, 5G subscriptions accounted for 6 percent of its total customer base.

An excellent network is the foundation

With a focus on covering outdoors and subways, 85 cities are connected to 5G networks in the 3.5 GHz band. And early tests on 5G performance in South Korea have found that LG Uplus has an edge over its rivals – research by RootMetrics showed a peak download rate of 903 Mb/s. The operator also demonstrated a significant lead in median download speeds at 426 Mbps, compared with 287 Mbps from SK Telecom and 163 Mbps from KT.

RootMetrics reported that LG Uplus has the fastest 5G speeds as well as low latency and strong reliability, stating that these three features give the operator an edge over the competition in the early phases of 5G deployment. As its 5G download availability rate of 44.6 percent continues to grow, the end-user experience should get even faster and more reliable.

Meanwhile data usage per customer on LG Uplus’s 5G network is 30 GB per month, compared to 10 GB on 4G, generating an increase in ARPU for the operator.

Pioneering diverse 5G services 

In a recent report, Strategy Analytics (SA) stated that LG Uplus enjoys a much higher 5G market share than its overall retail market share. SA notes that South Korea is a highly competitive market where differentiation in network quality and pricing is difficult.  LG Uplus has succeeded in 5G thanks to a strong focus on AR and VR content, both of which provide a compelling use case for B2C 5G services and also create a source of exclusive content.

Indeed, VR and AR services, which require download speeds that are at least 10 times faster than required by conventional video, offer an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the new network to consumers and give them a reason to upgrade. To seed the market with VR hardware, LG Uplus has been bundling VR headsets with selected plans. And the telco has launched other forms of video such as multi-view sports broadcasting, which takes advantage of the higher speeds of 5G networks.

Network expansion

Following this success, the operator is now focused on expanding coverage and its service offerings.

It expects to start 5G standalone (SA) tests in the fourth quarter and aims to be ready for commercial use in the first half of 2020.

Speaking at Huawei’s Global Mobile Broadband Forum in Zurich in October, LG Uplus CTO Choi Taek-Jin said the telco plans to upgrade its gNodeB to support SA and deploy a next-generation core network.

He noted, however, there are a number of technical issues around the design of an SA migration path, with the key technical factor for SA being the deployment of a 5G core network “In parallel to our own work, LG Uplus is closely monitoring China’s SA strategy and progress.”

LG Uplus is aiming to increase the number of 5G active antenna units (AAUs) from 60,000 to 80,000 by the end of the year.

mmWave trials

In addition to migrating to SA, the company is trialing the 5G service in the 28 GHz band and looking at how to use the mmWave band to deploy hotspots for B2B services such as smart factory applications. Choi said that 28 GHz trials will continue in 2020, with possible rollout using the band in 2021, adding that it’s evaluating the capabilities of both public and private solutions for delivering 5G services to factories.

Choi said that network slicing trials are at an early stage across a number of industry verticals, with a short-term focus on smart factory applications. “We’re conducting 5G verticals pilots and evaluating use cases and impacts on the network such as uplink traffic load and reliability.”

LG Uplus is analyzing the possible use of 5G with other LG industrial units in the chemical and industrial processing sectors, with Choi adding that for smart factory applications, it’s important to prepare and evaluate the 5G network using SA and the 28 GHz band.

He believes the biggest deployment challenge is precise 5G planning for deployment on legacy sites and cooperation with user equipment suppliers.

Indoor challenges

According to VR/AR service requirements, the standard for LG Uplus’s 5G Network planning is a minimum outdoor data rate of 100 Mbps and a minimum indoor rate of 30 Mbps. He noted that C-band delivers worse indoor coverage than LTE, but requires up to twice the investment.

While admitting that for indoor coverage there are some sites where 4G performance is better than 5G, he said that the telco is taking steps to optimize and improve 5G indoor coverage by 2020.

The company highlighted the use of three key technologies: EN DC (E-UTRAN/NR Dual Connectivity), beamforming, and multiuser-MIMO.

Paying a premium

Seventy percent of its 5G subscribers have opted for top-tier data plans, with 100 percent using smartphones.

Choi said customers are willing to pay a premium for 5G packages because of the higher speeds and larger data allowance. He sees AR/VR as a killer application for 5G, but acknowledges the overall ecosystem of AR/VR, “is not fully ready as the industry needs to develop more content and provide better AR/VR devices. We’re actively working with other players and operators to speed up the ecosystem.” 

In September 2019, LG Uplus announced its partnership with China Unicom to offer a roaming service for 5G customers travelling in China. The two operators began roaming trials in China in June and completed network integration tests in mid-August.

South Korea surpassed the 3 million 5G subscriber mark in early September, with coverage expected to reach 93 percent of the population by the end of the year. The country – and LG Uplus in particular – are pioneers in global 5G deployment.