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Korea recalls mobile operators’ 5G licences

KT and LG U+ are losing their 5G spectrum licenses after failing to make good on their promise of “True 5G,” while SK Telecom’s license period will be reduced by six months from its original December 2023 end date.

The companies were unable to meet their obligations under the terms of the licenses, in part because they found little demand for high-speed 5G services.

Spectrum being taken back is that at 28 gigahertz, which provides faster downloads than the 3.5-gigahertz spectrum, which was also allocated for 5G. The regulators claim that the companies did not meet benchmarks set out in the licensing agreements.

Licenses retrieved from either KT and LG U+ will be auctioned off, with the ministry promising active support measures and incentives to bring in a new player.

They “did not meet even the minimum requirements for the 28-gigahertz band infrastructure,” the Ministry of Science and ICT said in a release on Nov. 18.

Korea’s three largest telecom companies — SK Telecom, KT and LG U+ — spent a combined 620 billion won ($463.7 million) in 2018 to license 28-gigahertz spectrum for five years. The companies were required to install 15,000 base stations each for the 28-gigahertz 5G network by 2021.

According to the ICT Ministry’s release Wednesday, KT installed 1,586 base stations as of April this year, only 10.7 percent of the initially promised number, and earned 27.3 points from the ministry, missing the minimum passing score of 30 points. LG U+ scored 28.9 points with 1,868 base stations, 12.5 percent of the target number.

SK Telecom installed 1,605 base stations, and though the number is smaller than that of LG U+, it scored 30.5 percent for its overall performance and plans for additional installments in the future. SK Telecom’s license will be taken away if the company fails to install 15,000 base stations by May 2023.

The 5G connections consumers get now, which is four to five times the speed of 4G, is carried on the 3.5-gigahertz band. Ultra-fast 5G, True 5G, utilizes the high-band 28-gigahertz band, also known as the millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum for its short wavelength. It has a download speed 20 times faster than 4G in theory.

While the 3.5-gigahertz band is slower than the 28-gigahertz band in terms of network speed, the signal carries farther.

In order to boost 28-gigahertz band utilization, the three telecom companies and the ICT Ministry have been installing high-band 5G WiFi modules in subway stations in Seoul for a test operation.

As KT and LG U+ will likely drop out, the ICT Ministry demanded SK Telecom continue with the project as the sole operator.

The ICT Ministry argues that the local roll-out performance is lagging behind their overseas counterparts.

Verizon deployed 33,000 mmWave base stations in the United States as of March, and the number will reach 45,000 by the end of this year. Japanese telecom operators including NTT Docomo had installed 22,000 base stations by July.

Telecom companies have been blaming high costs for their sluggish progress in the 28-gigahertz infrastructure roll-out.

One of the major issues was that there is no handset in Korea that supports the mmWave spectrum. While 61 million smartphones that support high-band 5G network have been supplied worldwide, none have been released in Korea.

The government is keen to get the spectrum back because it can be used for more advanced technologies.

“As the millimeter wave bandwidth is expected to be actively utilized in the 6G network communication in the future, the relative immaturity of the domestic 28-gigahertz bandwidth ecosystem compared to other countries may undermine Korea’s foothold as the leading player in the telecom sector, and therefore is very worrisome,” the ministry said.

It is not clear whether anyone wants to spectrum.

“The telecom service providers were the most qualified candidates for making large investments in the network infrastructure,” said Kim Yong-hee, a business professor at Dongguk University Graduate School of Digital Image and Contents. But even they could not utilize the 28-gigahertz band.

The underlying problem is that the 28-gigahertz 5G network basically has no practical use except for some limited business-to-business applications, such as smart factories, said Kim.

“In order for them to carry out investments, there needs to be a mid or long-term scenario for retrieving the investments, for which there is none at this point,” said Kim. “To encourage the investment, content or service that would be worth the costs need to be developed first.”

Overseas high-band infrastructure roll-out is also mostly for test operation of business-to-business services, added Kim.

The ICT Ministry’s penalty against the telecom companies will be finalized after the hearing in December. The government is mulling possible inducements to attract investments.

“Finding a new operator for the frequency band won’t be easy,” said Park Yun-kyu, the second vice minister of Science and ICT, during a press briefing held on Nov. 18 at the Government Complex Seoul. Park pledged to come up with a support plan to encourage high-band utilization and investment.

The ministry established a task force for a new 28-gigahertz auction on Thursday, in order to discuss support measures to bring in a new buyer for the retrieved high-band spectrums. KoreaJoongAngDaily

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