With the highest smartphone penetration of any country in the world, it seems natural to look to South Korea for a glimpse into what the future might hold for operators in other mature markets. And it’s certainly an interesting picture. The question is just how worried it should make the operators.
First and foremost, all those smartphone users – over 20 million in a country of just under 49 million people, according to one recent count – mean truly staggering volumes of data traffic. South Koreans already generate more data traffic per person than anybody else, with volumes increasing almost 20 times last year alone, and are set to reach over 100 gigabytes each – every month – by 2015. To put that in perspective, it’s roughly what today’s US user gets through in a year.
So it’s hardly surprising that LTE is a hot topic in South Korea. Each of the three major local operators has launched an LTE offering, with SK Telecom predicting 10 million users on its LTE network by 2015. But there are already signs that LTE alone won’t be enough – and may even make things worse. KT’s LTE subscribers are using 170 percent more voice services and 112 percent more data than their 3G customers, while SK, having spent USD 2 billion in 2011 on network upgrades, is already talking about rolling out LTE-Advanced by 2013 to keep up with demand. When the best way for KT to show the media their LTE capabilities without signal interference is to hold the briefing on board a ship, as it did last week, you get a sense of just what they and the other operators are up against.
Sounds tough, right? And that’s without the OTT player that boasts 42 million users exchanging 1.3 billion messages every day (in a country of 49 million people, remember). So far the operator response to the runaway success of KakaoTalk has been an ineffectual mixture of denial and overpaying for rushed acquisitions in the same space, as exemplified by SK’s purchase this month of free mobile messenger service Tic Toc (revenues so far – zero) for a reported 20 billion won. KakaoTalk has issues of its own, not least a net loss of 14.2 billion won in 2011, but it’s hard to see how even the ongoing deployment of Rich Communication Services (RCS) based on the GSMA's Joyn initiative can help the country’s operators regain the upper hand.
There is also a political dimension. In the run-up to December’s presidential election the telecom market has been one of the battlegrounds. The in-power Saenuri Party promises to cut mobile voice call rates by 20 percent and force operators to offer unlimited LTE data plans. Estimates suggest this policy could cost operators a combined 1 trillion won in revenues. The opposition, the Democratic United Party, claims it will abolish basic charges while mandating free text messaging and public Wi-Fi, which may leave operators down by 7 trillion won. Little wonder that one telecom insider recently complained that politicians in South Korea “lack any insight about the industry at all.”
What do you think? Is the Korean experience a sign of things to come for operators everywhere as smartphone usage continues to rise, or can the right network strategies, a smarter response to the OTT challenge and different political priorities make a difference?