By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea will become one of the first countries to commercially launch fifth-generation (5G) services as it rolls out on Friday the latest wireless technology with Samsung Electronics' new 5G-enabled smartphone Galaxy S10.
With one of the world's top smartphone penetration rates, South Korea is in a race with China, the United States and Japan to market 5G, hoping the technology will spur breakthrough in fields such as smart cities and autonomous cars, and drive up its economic growth that slowed to a six-year low in 2018.
"It is meaningful that South Korean telecom companies are providing services and networks meeting South Korean customers' high standard in speed and picture quality," Ryu Young-sang, executive vice president at the country's top mobile carrier SK Telecom, said on Wednesday.
A few hours after the announcement, U.S. telecoms company Verizon Communications Inc said it was launching Wednesday its 5G service on mobile phones in two cities, moving up its schedule by a week.
"For the first time ever, customers can access a commercial 5G network with the world’s first commercially available 5G-enabled smartphone," Verizon said in a statement on Wednesday.
U.S. carriers have launched 5G services in limited areas and not on all devices as early as last year. "We launched the first mobile 5G network several months ago and we’ve followed that up with other firsts, including 1 Gig speeds last week with more cities to come soon," said an AT&T spokesman, disputing South Korea's first in 5G claim.
Telecoms and media company AT&T Inc has said it was the first to launch a "commercial and standards-based" 5G network in December 2018. The service was made available to mobile hotspot devices but not yet on phones on Dec. 21 in 12 cities.
5G will change the landscape of the gaming industry as it allows games streamed with minimal delay to be played on smartphones, SK Telecom's Ryu said.
The technology can offer 20-times faster data speeds than 4G long-term evolution (LTE) networks and better support for artificial intelligence and virtual reality with low latency.
Sometimes it can offer 100-times faster speeds.
South Korean carriers have spent billions on campaigns marketing 5G and, on Wednesday, SK Telecom showed off K-pop stars and an Olympic gold medallist as its first 5G customers.
SK Telecom is working with its memory-chip making affiliate SK Hynix to build a highly digitised and connected factory powered by 5G technology, Ryu said.
The operator expects about 1 million 5G customers by end-2019. It has a total of 27 million users.
Smaller rival KT Corp is set to offer cheaper plans than its LTE service, with unlimited data and four-year instalments to buy 5G devices.
Samsung was the first to unwrap a 5G phone in February when it unveiled the Galaxy S10 5G and a nearly $2,000 (£1,520) folding smartphone, putting the world's top smartphone maker by volume in pole position in the 5G race, some analysts say.
Smaller local rival LG Electronics Inc plans to release its 5G smartphone in South Korea later this month.
While security concerns over 5G networks using telecom equipment made by China's Huawei Technologies Co Ltd have marred the buildup to the release of these services, South Korean telcos have tried to shrug them off.
"I don't think we have a security issue in South Korea," Park Jin-hyo, head of SK Telecom's information and communication tech research centre, told reporters.
He added that the company uses advanced technology to block eavesdropping or hacking into 5G networks.
Among South Korea's top three telecom operators, SK Telecom and KT Corp do not use Huawei equipment for 5G. Smaller carrier LG Uplus Corp uses Huawei gear.
But SK Telecom officials said it was likely there will be an open auction for network equipment makers including Huawei if South Korea needs more base stations for higher frequencies.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Sayantani Ghosh, Himani Sarkar, Lisa Shumaker and Diane Craft)