SK Telecom: Lessons in 5G, AI, and adjacent market growth

Transformation

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What can others learn from SK Telecom’s advanced efforts to grow in the face of declining core telecoms revenues? 5G is a part of the story, but not all of it.

SK Telecom’s strategy

SK Telecom is the largest mobile operator in South Korea with a 42% share of the mobile market and is also a major fixed broadband operator. It’s growth strategy is focused on 5G, AI and a small number of related business areas where it sees the potential for revenue to replace that lost from its core mobile business.

By developing applications based on 5G and AI it hopes to create additional revenue streams both for its mobile business and for new areas, as it has done in smart home and is starting to do for a variety of smart business applications. In 5G it is placing an emphasis on indoor coverage and edge computing as basis for vertical industry applications. Its AI business is centred around NUGU, a smart speaker and a platform for business applications.

Its other main areas of business focus are media, security, ecommerce and mobility, but it is also active in other fields including healthcare and gaming.

The company takes an active role internationally in standards organisations and commercially, both in its own right and through many partnerships with other industry players.

It is a subsidiary of SK Group, one of the largest chaebols in Korea, which has interests in energy and oil. Chaebols are large family-controlled conglomerates which display a high level and concentration of management power and control. The ownership structures of chaebols are often complex owing to the many crossholdings between companies owned by chaebols and by family members. SK Telecom uses its connections within SK Group to set up ‘friendly user’ trials of new services, such as edge and AI

While the largest part of the business remains in mobile telecoms, SK Telecom also owns a number of subsidiaries, mostly active in its main business areas, for example:

  • SK Broadband which provides fixed broadband (ADSL and wireless), IPTV and mobile OTT services
  • ADT Caps, a securitybusiness
  • IDQ, which specialises in quantum cryptography (security)
  • 11st, an open market platform for ecommerce
  • SK Hynixwhich manufactures memory semiconductors

Few of the subsidiaries are owned outright by SKT; it believes the presence of other shareholders can provide a useful source of further investment and, in some cases, expertise.

SKT was originally the mobile arm of KT, the national operator. It was privatised soon after establishing a cellular mobile network and subsequently acquired by SK Group, a major chaebol with interests in energy and oil, which now has a 27% shareholding. The government pension service owns a 11% share in SKT, Citibank 10%, and 9% is held by SKT itself. The chairman of SK Group has a personal holding in SK Telecom.

Following this introduction, the report comprises three main sections:

  • SK Telecom’s business strategy: range of activities, services, promotions, alliances, joint ventures, investments, which covers:
    • Mobile 5G, Edge and vertical industry applications, 6G
    • AIand applications, including NUGU and Smart Homes
    • New strategic business areas, comprising Media, Security, eCommerce, and other areas such as mobility
  • Business performance
  • Industrial and national context.

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Overview of SKT’s activities

Network coverage

SK Telecom has been one of the earliest and most active telcos to deploy a 5G network. It initially created 70 5G clusters in key commercial districts and densely populated areas to ensure a level of coverage suitable for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) and plans to increase the number to 240 in 2020. It has paid particular attention to mobile (or multi-access) edge computing (MEC) applications for different vertical industry sectors and plans to build 5G MEC centres in 12 different locations across Korea. For its nationwide 5G Edge cloud service it is working with AWS and Microsoft.

In recognition of the constraints imposed by the spectrum used by 5G, it is also working on ensuring good indoor 5G coverage in some 2,000 buildings, including airports, department stores and large shopping malls as well as small-to-medium-sized buildings using distributed antenna systems (DAS) or its in-house developed indoor 5G repeaters. It also is working with Deutsche Telekom on trials of the repeaters in Germany. In addition, it has already initiated activities in 6G, an indication of the seriousness with which it is addressing the mobile market.

NUGU, the AI platform

It launched its own AI driven smart speaker, NUGU in 2016/7, which SKT is using to support consumer applications such as Smart Home and IPTV. There are now eight versions of NUGU for consumers and it also serves as a platform for other applications. More recently it has developed several NUGU/AI applications for businesses and civil authorities in conjunction with 5G deployments. It also has an AI based network management system named Tango.

Although NUGU initially performed well in the market, it seems likely that the subsequent launch of smart speakers by major global players such as Amazon and Google has had a strong negative impact on the product’s recent growth. The absence of published data supports this view, since the company often only reports good news, unless required by law. SK Telecom has responded by developing variants of NUGU for children and other specialist markets and making use of the NUGU AI platform for a variety of smart applications. In the absence of published information, it is not possible to form a view on the success of the NUGU variants, although the intent appears to be to attract young users and build on their brand loyalty.

It has offered smart home products and services since 2015/6. Its smart home portfolio has continually developed in conjunction with an increasing range of partners and is widely recognised as one of the two most comprehensive offerings globally. The other being Deutsche Telekom’s Qivicon. The service appears to be most successful in penetrating the new build market through the property developers.

NUGU is also an AI platform, which is used to support business applications. SK Telecom has also supported the SK Group by providing new AI/5G solutions and opening APIs to other subsidiaries including SK Hynix. Within the SK Group, SK Planet, a subsidiary of SK Telecom, is active in internet platform development and offers development of applications based on NUGU as a service.

Smart solutions for enterprises

SKT continues to experiment with and trial new applications which build on its 5G and AI applications for individuals (B2C), businesses and the public sector. During 2019 it established B2B applications, making use of 5G, on-prem edge computing, and AI, including:

  • Smart factory(real time process control and quality control)
  • Smart distribution and robot control
  • Smart office (security/access control, virtual docking, AR/VRconferencing)
  • Smart hospital (NUGUfor voice command for patients, AR-based indoor navigation, facial recognition technology for medical workers to improve security, and investigating possible use of quantum cryptography in hospital network)
  • Smart cities; e.g. an intelligent transportation system in Seoul, with links to vehicles via 5Gor SK Telecom’s T-Map navigation service for non-5G users.

It is too early to judge whether these B2B smart applications are a success, and we will continue to monitor progress.

Acquisition strategy

SK Telecom has been growing these new business areas over the past few years, both organically and by acquisition. Its entry into the security business has been entirely by acquisition, where it has bought new revenue to compensate for that lost in the core mobile business. It is too early to assess what the ongoing impact and success of these businesses will be as part of SK Telecom.

Acquisitions in general have a mixed record of success. SK Telecom’s usual approach of acquiring a controlling interest and investing in its acquisitions, but keeping them as separate businesses, is one which often, together with the right management approach from the parent, causes the least disruption to the acquired business and therefore increases the likelihood of longer-term success. It also allows for investment from other sources, reducing the cost and risk to SK Telecom as the acquiring company. Yet as a counterpoint to this, M&A in this style doesn’t help change practices in the rest of the business.

However, it has also shown willingness to change its position as and when appropriate, either by sale, or by a change in investment strategy. For example, through its subsidiary SK Planet, it acquired Shopkick, a shopping loyalty rewards business in 2014, but sold it in 2019, for the price it paid for it. It took a different approach to its activity in quantum technologies, originally set up in-house in 2011, which it rolled into IDQ following its acquisition in 2018.

SKT has also recently entered into partnerships and agreements concerning the following areas of business:

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction and overview
    • Overview of SKT’s activities
  • Business strategy and structure
    • Strategy and lessons
    • 5G deployment
    • Vertical industry applications
    • AI
    • SK Telecom ‘New Business’ and other areas
  • Business performance
    • Financial results
    • Competitive environment
  • Industry and national context
    • International context

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