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Despite predictions for a 2020 launch, South Korea is striving to deliver 5G for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Can it be done?

JUNG YEON-JE / AFP

When Rio de Janeiro was announced as the venue for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, the world held its breath. Doubt gnawed at athletes who grew wary about the city’s cleanliness and safety, while Brazil’s political instability was also called into question. In the end, Rio pulled through and put on a spectacular show. But premium connectivity proved to be an issue with so many people uploading and downloading content on the go. With the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics set for 2018, 5G has been highlighted as the ultimate solution to deliver premium connectivity to attendees. South Korea is racing to deliver 5G on time, despite predictions for a 2020 launch.   

We’re living in the dawn of the online era. Sharing content online has become an essential tool at events like the Olympics for media and enthusiasts to share sporting victories and highlight intriguing controversies. Even though Brazil made its best effort to connect people by bringing in 180 mobile stations and 40 dedicated coverage stations in anticipation of the high communication volume, weak infrastructure was exposed as it attempted to deal with an estimated  27 million voice calls and three million SMS texts.

As the fifth-largest country in the world, covering 3.3 million square miles, Brazil faced unique challenges creating seamless connectivity for the 2016 Olympics. For instance, there are areas of rural countryside that require some degree of coverage but don’t have the same demands as the cities. What’s more, Brazil’s urban centers have huge populations making it all the more difficult to serve (Sao Paulo hosts more than 11 million people, while Rio hosts more than 6 million).

These obstacles have made Brazilian telecommunications services infamously unreliable and expensive. According to a report by Recode, SMS texts in Brazil cost 55 times more than in the U.S. As a result, Brazil has become famous for its widespread use of the free messaging service WhatsApp, with 96 percent of the population said to be using it as their primary channel of communication. At the Rio Olympics, every Snapchat sent, every Tweet and every Facebook post uploaded, put a strain on Rio’s mobile infrastructure.

To offer an immersive and connected experience for those who attend the Olympics, mobile operators are planning to introduce 5G at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, to provide innovative new services to spectators, viewers and organizers. If implemented by then, 5G could transform the experience of watching live sporting events, removing the obstacle Rio faced with so many people uploading and downloading at the same time, since 5G is expected to serve data rates of tens of megabits per second for tens of thousands of users, with added spectral efficiency compared to 4G, and reduced latency.

But will 5G be ready for deployment as early as February 2018? Korea Telecom certainly believes so. The telco has been selected as the official telecommunications service provider for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which the company has dubbed the “5G Olympics”. KT plans to show the world how far it has gone in deployment and testing of 5G technologies. The company is working closely with American telecom operator Verizon as part of its effort to lead the development of a 5G standard, and will also be conducting 5G trials with a view to launching a live service ready for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

KT’s Jae Yoon Park spoke at the LTE World Summit in Amsterdam this year, where he presented the operator’s 5G vision and enabling strategy to achieve next-generation cellular connectivity. He suggested that achieving 5G connectivity will be as big an achievement as it was putting a man on the moon. After giving a technological and strategic overview of KT’s 5G roadmap, Park said a revolution is required in order to realize the full potential of 5G.

“5G evolution alone based on LTE is not going to realize its own potential, a revolution based on new industry architecture, a new radio access technology is required,” said Park. “KT will continually evolve its network and develop key technologies, like massive MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) with beamforming, as well as virtualization such as vRAN, SDN and NFV.”

Park discussed the spectrum requirements of 5G, and stressed the significance of MIMO and beamforming to help cope. “Coverage should be one of the main concerns, as well as throughput, latency and capacity,” he said. “It is speculated that 5G will utilize ultra-high frequencies beyond 6GHz. Massive MIMO and beamforming will be mandatory.”

KT is optimistic about launching 5G in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics – a target that will be a world-first. “We’re trialing a 5G network across Seoul, PyeongChang, Jeongseon, Bogwang, and Incheon International airport, using our revolution versus evolution model,” Park said. “We believe PyeongChang 2018 will be the first 5G Olympic Games ever.”

According to a recent post on the Netmanias Tech Blog, "KT is aiming to add 35,000 wired communication lines along the communication duct lines (1,391 km long) being placed across the town of the event. It also plans to install over 5,000 Wi-Fi APs, support 4G/5G/WiFi access, and deploy a mobile communication network capable of supporting up to active 250,000 devices concurrently.

“The company is also building a cloud-based data center to ensure more efficient and reliable mobile services through more stabilized networks even during traffic spikes with hundreds of thousands of concurrent users. The data center is scheduled to be completed in the first half of the year, and will become fully stabilized after trial operation in the second half of the year."

5G standardization

There is reason to doubt that 5G could be ready for deployment by 2018 because of its current lack of standardization. The 3GPP standards body is working on standardizing 5G as soon as possible, but the group isn’t planning to produce the first incarnation of Release 15 (the first 5G specifications) until June 2018. That means if 5G is introduced at the 2018 Winter Olympics, it will have to be pre-standardization. Even so, South Korea remains confident that it will be able to deliver 5G at its games, and beat Japan to the race.

The United Nations International Telecommunications Union has set a goal for 5G standardization by 2020, far from what South Korea expects, meaning that the technology might not even be fully defined until then. But in saying that, there are some technologies that are widely expected to be a part of 5G, such as the use of millimeter save spectrum, which according to the Korea Times, is an area of expertise of great interest to Verizon Wireless.

In February this year, KT joined with Verizon, as well as its South Korean counterpart SK Telecom, and Japan’s NTT DoCoMo, to set testing standards for 5G. The announcement was made at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The purpose of the alliance was to help network equipment manufacturers design 5G equipment more efficiently, and allow the wireless industry to test key technical components.

Verizon and SK Telecom have since announced further ties to strengthen their 5G network footprint. The telcos recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to merge their 5G technical specifications on a global basis. The partnership is said to produce a number of joint studies and research that will further be utilized for the development of 5G technical specification and innovative use cases.

Like KT, SK Telecom is eager for a pre-commercial 5G launch in 2017. The company plans to bring together an “end-to-end 5G pilot system in an outdoor environment” using the “key enabling technologies” it has identified for 5G which includes: millimeter wave (mmWave), high-frequency radio connectivity for devices and network, LTE, 5G and WiGig (60GHz) internetworking, virtualized RAN, network slicing and a distributed core network, all by the end of 2016.

SK Telecom also has ambitions for a large scale pre-commercial 5G deployment for more detailed assessment of the overall 5G system by 2017. In March, the company completed a 5G 28GHz radio test outdoors.

American operator AT&T has also made waves in the run-up to 5G, working with several other teclos to enable 5G deployment once 3GPP completes the first release of the official specifications, which will form the basis of the global standards for 5G. AT&T has reportedly entered preliminary discussions with Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, LG, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung, SK Telecom, Telstra, Vodafone and others to find and resolve key standards issues to boost commercialization of 5G.  

“We’re joining other tech leaders to find and resolve key standards issues early and bring 5G to market sooner,” said Tom Keathley, senior vice president, wireless network architecture and design, AT&T. “Interim and fragmented pre-standard specifications can distract from the ultimate goal. Linking trials to the standards process is the fastest path to large-scale global 5G deployment.”

AT&T has been trialing 5G this year, including lab tests in the second quarter and outdoor tests in Middletown, New Jersey and Austin, Texas over the summer. 5G speeds between 10 to 100 times faster than today’s average 4G LTE connections were anticipated by the AT&T, and it achieved this in June when its 5G data speeds reached up to 10 Gbps in the lab.

South Korea’s great ambition

South Korea is working aggressively to launch 5G by 2018 in order to set the record as the first country to launch the technology at an Olympic event. To get there, GSMA Intelligence indicates that the country’s R&D efforts are partially integrated with similar efforts taking place around the world. For example, some of the 5G research that is going on in South Korea is being partly financed by the European Union, through collaboration with the Korean government on 5G technologies.

A report by Mobile World Live says the Finnish University of Oulu’s research unit - The Centre for Wireless Communications – has been deployed to develop the necessary 5G radio solutions and integrating them into a functioning mobile network, to be ready for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. Similar arrangements are said to exist with operators, vendors and research institutes in Germany, France, Belgium and Korea. Swedish vendor Ericsson is specifically supporting KT’s efforts to develop 5G.

Tying into its smart-connected vision, in 2014, South Korea announced plans adopted by the government to build a broadband network dedicated to public safety using LTE technology to be deployed nationwide by 2017 just in time for the Winter Olympics.

In July, SK Telecom said it had established a demonstration network for its public safety long-term evolution (SP-LTE) service in Gangwon Province. The Korean carrier said it had completed its own demonstration PS-LTE network in the same region for the government’s trial project to prepare to launch a nationwide pubic security network service before the 2017 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

In the case of an emergency, the PS-LTE network will be able to seamlessly transfer multimedia information, such as high-resolution photos and videos, between related government departments and agencies, including fire departments, police and rescue teams, through high-speed LTE networks to support efficient relief activities, reports Korea Times. SK Telecom says it has passed all functional qualification tests and approval processes administered by the Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

SK Telecom has established new mobile base stations and an emergency recovery system to provide temporary networks incase network facilities are damaged by natural disasters. The telco said these technologies have been certified by the Telecommunications Technology Association for compatibility and security.

South Korea also launched its inaugural commercial, low-cost Internet of Things (IoT) network in July that will allow smart devices to communicate. The only other country to launch a nationwide IoT network is the Netherlands. SK Telecom was behind the initiative, which uses technology that will allow it to reach 99 percent of South Korea’s population.

Given the collected efforts of multiple telcos around the world to develop 5G, as well as a nationwide commercial IoT network, and forward-thinking network safety technology being put in place, South Korea could see its dream of 5G deployment come true at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Domestic competition between the likes of SK Telecom and KT, as well as considerable international interest could see 5G pushed into early deployment just in time.