SK Telecom: Setting the LTE agenda

22 May 2013 | Guy Matthews


SK Telecom is taking 4G to the next level, but can it maintain its pioneering pace? Guy Matthews discovers what tricks it has up its sleeve.

In many developed markets for communications services, there can be a certain hesitancy around the deployment of the very latest technology.

Operators accustomed to competing with cut throat tactics where established standards are concerned become a little queasy near the ‘bleeding edge’. Let the other guy mess it up with an ill-judged commercial roll-out. We’ll keep things at pilot stage for a bit longer, come in as second mover and get it right.

They do things differently in South Korea. The concept of the bleeding edge appears to have no currency there. Korean companies fearlessly lead the world in the penetration of a number of next-generation service types, for example direct connection of optical fibre to homes and businesses, and fourth generation wireless.

It is in the latter sphere that mobile operator SK Telecom has been making the headlines. Its first full commercial deployment of LTE was back in July 2011, when 4G was little more than a sandbox experiment for most operators.

SK Telecom claims that the proportion of LTE subscribers among its total mobile subscriber base is upwards of 35%, the highest such figure for any operator in the world. It is also growing this base faster than anybody else, accelerating fast beyond the 9.2 million subscriber mark it hit in March 2013. At this point, it is hard to see who will match it for 4G pace over the coming years.

As of September of this year, SK Telecom plans to step up another gear with what should prove to be the world’s first launch of LTE Advanced, or LTE-A. It is preparing for this staging post by upgrading its base stations.

Choi Jin-sung, EVP and head of ICT R&D at SK Telecom, insists LTE-A is a necessity, rather than an exercise is one-upmanship. He says adoption of this high octane version of basic LTE is being driven solely by the need to meet the increasing demands of its customers, and accommodate surging data traffic on its networks.

He says SK is also working on other parallel advances for the same reason, such as intelligent base stations and software-defined networks (SDN), not just to help differentiate itself from rivals but to deliver the added value sought by Korea’s voracious mobile services market. Jin-sung recognises that LTE is not in any case best viewed as a solo effort, but an effective community of interests with other cellular brand names.

“Because of the fragmentation of LTE frequency globally, there needs to be more discussion and cooperation among mobile operators, for example to provide LTE auto-roaming services to customers,” he believes.

“Since the launch of LTE auto-roaming services in Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Philippines, SK Telecom has put efforts into joining hands with many global operators.”

The brotherhood of Asian LTE pace setters is represented by the Bridge Alliance (BA), a club of twelve top-tier operators from the Asia-Pacific region’s mobile community, serving over 470 million customers between them. Its mission is to provide seamless multi-country roaming services through alliance membership.

“At recent BA meetings, SK Telecom and other members created a consensus that strategic partnerships between carriers around the world are vital as LTE data roaming takes an important role in the future direction of next-generation roaming services,” he says. “Over the next couple of years, mobile operators in countries that have LTE services up and running will focus on upgrading their network to realise LTE Advanced.”


Spotlight on Voice over LTE
Jin-sung says SK Telecom also believes that LTE can be as revolutionary in the voice market as it has been in the data market: “We launched the world’s first nationwide VoLTE service, named HD Voice, in August 2012,” he says.

“VoLTE improves voice quality by 40% over 3G voice calls by utilising a wider bandwidth compared to 3G. Moreover, the call connection time is less than 0.25 to 2.5 seconds, two to 20 times shorter than 3G voice calls. VoLTE also provides seamless conversion between voice and video calls. SK Telecom plans to further develop innovative services based on our VoLTE service.”

SK Telecom’s strategy looks vertically as well as horizontally. In the field of healthcare, for example, it plans to combine ICT and medical services to create new business models that it says can provide new value to patients. It has similarly targeted the media sector for special attention.

Nor is LTE the only new technology area where SK Telecom has been investing for the future. It has been developing, for example, sophisticated video technologies including so-called ‘intelligent video solutions’. This allows, among other things, smart video surveillance of the habits of customers within shopping centres. Tied in with this is research, in partnership with Bell Labs, into use of the Big Data that such surveillance kicks up.

SK Telecom is developing Big Data expertise not just for its own purposes, but for introduction to the global carrier market. Geovision, for example, is a service that enables other carriers to analyse market data more effectively. The company is also leading the way in social media data mining since launching a service for that purpose in 2011.


Global pursuits
As SK Telecom invests in taking LTE from South Korea’s key metro areas into the country’s less well populated parts, it is also pursuing an international strategy aimed at making it a leader not just within its domestic scene, but a major influence in neighbouring economies and beyond.

It has had a stake of sorts in Chinese telecoms from as long ago as 2000, well before that market became the powerhouse it is today. Back in 2004, it started the ball rolling for what within two years would become a full strategic partnership with China Unicom.
 
The two have launched a number of services since, including a TD-SCDMA project in conjunction with the Chinese government. TD-SCDMA is China’s take on 3G. The joint venture is called UNISK, and for depth and equality of partnership is unique in the field of Chinese JVs. SK Telecom is the first foreign company to have any stake in Chinese 3G.

A venture in the US under the brand name Helio, in partnership with ISP Earthlink, did not fare so well. It started in 2005, but by 2008 was wound up having failed to make expected inroads.

A happier outcome looks likely from Mobile Money Ventures, a joint venture with Citibank. This was established to design, develop, implement and support mobile financial services solutions on a global scale, compatible with existing mobile banking services as well as next generation services like P2P and NFC payments.

SK Telecom also has a long-standing foothold in Vietnam in the form of S-Telecom, a JV set up in partnership with Saigon Postel, a Vietnamese company with a CDMA license. The venture upgraded to CDMA2000 1xEV-DO recently to meet growing demand from customers, and is at present providing services to 64 cities including Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi under the S-Fone brand.

Some of SK Telecom’s best collaborative work is being done not with other operators but with the vendor and device maker community, who clearly find it useful to be working with a real life telco happy to put their newer and less tested inventions to work.

The quid pro quo is that SK Telecom get to keep up its world beating reputation: “To date, the company has achieved the world’s first demonstrations of core LTE-A technologies, namely enhanced Inter-Cell Interference Coordination, Cooperative Multi-Point, Carrier Aggregation (CA), and Uplink CoMP, under partnerships with major telecommunications equipment providers like Qualcomm, Nokia Siemens Networks and Ericsson,” says Jin-sung.

SK Telecom’s restless hunger for the next big thing reflects something of a national obsession with technical innovation, says analyst Paul Budde of BuddeCom: “The drive towards a ‘new economy’ on South Korea has seen significant investments in smart infrastructure including cloud computing, smart grids and smart cities,” he observes. It’s an obsession that goes right up to government level, he points out, with plans in place that pan as far ahead as 2018.

If SK Telecom does lose its pioneer crown to some other player, there’s every chance it will also be South Korean.