Korea ushered in the era of 5G era at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 1, when the country’s three mobile carriers -- SKT, KT and LG Uplus -- simultaneously switched on 5G networks. Although the services are limited to business users on fixed-wireless access, with the roll out of 5G cellular services for consumers expected in March 2019, the day was marked with much fanfare by the mobile carriers as they offered visions of a world more connected than ever at a faster speed than ever.
Things that decades ago belonged in the realm of sci-fi will soon be realized on commercial scale thanks to 5G. Remote operations by robots, self-driving cars that communicate with each other on the roads are but some of the things that will be realized through 5G.
With the joint launch, which is being touted as the first commercial 5G launch in the world, Korea is trying to reaffirm its status as an IT powerhouse: It ranks 10th in mobile broadband subscription among the 37 OECD countries, ranks fourth among the OECD countries in fixed-line broadband subscription with the penetration rate of 41.2 percent and the recent World Economic Forum report on the Global Competitiveness Index cited the country as leading the ICT adoption pillar.
Go back a few days, however, and the reality of Korea’s IT industry is laid painfully bare. A fire that broke out in the basement of a KT building in northwestern Seoul on Nov. 24 paralyzed the telecom giant’s local network, disrupting life as we know it for countless people.
With phone conversations abruptly cut, internet connections dead and television screens going blank, many living in the northwestern part of the capital imagined the worst – an attack by North Korea. Although emergency text messages about the service disruptions were sent to cellphones, KT subscribers, whose phones were down, had no way of knowing what was happening.
What followed was everyone’s nightmare come true. People unable to locate their families and friends, college students desperately searching for Wi-Fi hotspots to send their mid-term papers, convenience store customers turning around when told they could only pay in cash, people going to ATMS only to find they were down, too. There were long lines for public phones, but not many people had coins on them.
In the ensuing days, the magnitude of the disruption caused by the fire of yet unknown origin was revealed. Such essential services as police, hospitals and the military were also affected by the network outage at a telecom building classified in the D-category, meaning that the “minor” facility was not monitored by the government, which classifies all telecommunications facilities into A-D categories.
As a D-category facility, the KT branch building in Ahyeon-dong was subject to very little safety regulations. It was not required to have a backup network, sprinklers or security cameras. There was only one fire extinguisher on the site.
Experts question why the hub facility assigned D-category status. In recent years, KT, in an effort at greater efficiency and profitability, has been consolidating its telecommunication facilities into hubs, selling off many of its properties. As a result, the Ahyeon-dong branch came to house some 168,000 circuits and 220 optical fiber cable sets that connect not only Seodaemun-gu, but parts of Yongsan-gu, Mapo-gu, Jung-gu as well as Goyang in Gyeonggi Province.
The government pledged to conduct onsite inspections of 835 D-category telecommunications facilities around the country as well as all major telecommunications facilities by the end of the year. It also said it would work with telcos to have sprinklers and security cameras installed in all facilities. As for the creation of redundancy in the network, carriers appear reluctant to do so, citing astronomical costs, which they warn will be borne by the customers.
Unless the network redundancy issue is addressed, similar chaos to those that followed the fire on Nov. 24 will be inevitable should another fire or natural disaster strike, not to mention the mayhem that would result from an electromagnetic pulse attack by North Korea. With the advent of 5G services, the consequences of being unprepared for such incidents will be dire.
Accidents do happen despite one’s best intentions. But one’s readiness for contingencies is what sets you apart -- whether you are a real world-class act that walks the talk or merely talking the talk. Korea’s claims to being an IT powerhouse notwithstanding, what has been made plain for everyone to see is that it still has quite a way to go before it comfortably claim so.
Kim Hoo-ran is the general news editor at The Korea Herald. – Ed.