SK Telecom’s journey in commercialising 5G

SK Telecom (SKT), Verizon and Telstra were among the first in the world to commence the commercialisation of 5G networks. SK Telecom and Verizon launched broadband-based propositions in 2018, but it was only in 2019, when 5G smartphones became available, that consumer, business and enterprise customers were really able to experience the networks.

Part 1 of our 3-part series looks at SKT’s journey and how its propositions have developed from when 5G was launched to the current time. It includes an analysis of both consumer and business offerings promoted on SKT’s website to identify the revenues streams that 5G is supporting now – as opposed to revenues that new 5G use cases might deliver in future.

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At launch, SKT introduced 5G-specific tariffs, that coupled large data allowances with unique apps and services designed to ensure data consumption and demonstrate the advantages of 5G access. 5G plans were more expensive than 4G plans, but the price of 5G data per MB was less than that for 4G to tempt customers to make the switch.

SKT’s well-documented approach to 5G has been regarded as inspirational by other telcos, though many consider a similar approach out-of-reach (e.g. for other telcos, coverage issues may limit their ability to charge a premium, or 5G-value-adding services may be lacking).

This report examines the market factors that have enabled and constrained SKT’s 5G actions, as it moves to deliver propositions for audiences beyond the early adopters and heavy data users. It identifies lessons in the commercialisation of 5G for those operators that are on their own 5G journeys and those that have yet to start.

5G performance to date

This analysis is based on the latest data available as we went to press in March 2021.

There were 10.9 million 5G subscribers in South Korea at end-November 2020 (15.5% of the total 70.5 million mobile subscriptions in the market, according to the Ministry of Science and ICT) and network coverage is reported to be more than 90% of the population (a figure that was already quoted in March 2020). Subscriber numbers grew by nearly one million in November 2020, boosted by the introduction of the iPhone 12, which sold 600K units that month.

SKT’s share of 5G subscribers was 46% (5.05 million) in November, to which SKT added a further 400K+ in December, reaching 5.48 million by the end of 2020.

The telco took just four and a half months to reach one million 5G subscribers following launch, significantly less than it had taken with 4G, which had attained the same milestone in eight months following 4G’s commercial launch in 2011.

SKT quarterly 5G subscriber numbers (millions)

SK Telecom 5G subscribers

Source: STL Partners, SK Telecom

SKT credits 5G subscriber growth for its 2.8% MNO revenue increase in the year to December 2020, however the impact on ARPU is less clear. An initial increase in overall ARPU followed the introduction of higher priced 5G plans at launch, but ARPU has fallen back slightly since then, possibly due to COVID-19 economic factors.

SKT total ARPU trend following 5G launch

SK Telecom 5G ARPU

Source: STL Partners

In its 2020 year-end earnings call, SKT reported that it was top of the leader board in South Korea’s three customer satisfaction surveys and in the 5G quality assessment by the Ministry of Science and ICT.

As a cautionary note, Hong Jung-min of the ruling Democratic Party reported that 500K 5G users had switched to 4G LTE during August 2020 due to network issues, including limited coverage, slower than expected speeds. It is unclear how SKT was affected by this.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Recommendations
    • Next steps
  • Introduction
  • 5G performance to date
  • Details of launch
  • Consumer propositions
    • At launch
    • …And now
  • Business and enterprise propositions
    • At launch
    • …And now
  • Analysis of 5G market development
    • What next?
    • mmWave
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix 1

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Private and vertical cellular networks: Threats and opportunities

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5G is catalysing demand for customisation

The arrival of 5G has catalysed a huge amount of interest in enterprise, government and “vertical” use-cases for cellular networks. Cellular technology is becoming ever more important and applicable for businesses, for diverse use-cases from factory automation, to better hospitality guest-services, to replacement of legacy two-way radios.

Some of this fits in with STL’s view of the Coordination Age, and the shift towards connectivity becoming part of wider, society-level or economy-level applications and solutions. However, in many ways it is more of an evolution of traditional enterprise use of private wireless solutions, but updated with newer and more-performant 5G radios. The future battleground is whether such coordination requires external services (and thus SPs), or whether the capabilities are best-delivered in-house on private networks.

For various reasons of cost, performance, accountability or guaranteed coverage, there is a drive towards greater customisation and control, often beyond that currently deliverable by traditional MNOs.

However, there is significant confusion between three things:

  • Mobile network services and applications sold to, or used by, industrial and enterprise customers
  • Mobile networks optimised, extended or virtualised for industrial and enterprise requirements
  • Mobile networks built exclusively for, or owned by, industrial companies and other enterprises

This report is a joint exercise between STL Partners and affiliate Disruptive Analysis, which has covered this sector in depth for almost 20 years. Its founder Dean Bubley runs workshops on private cellular and neutral-host networks, as well as undertaking private projects and speaking engagements advising operators, vendors, regulators and investors on business models, spectrum policy and market dynamics.

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What is a private mobile network?

This report primarily focuses on the third category – private mobile networks – although there is some overlap with the second, especially when techniques like network-slicing enter the discussion. There are different models of “private” too – from completely standalone networks that are entirely isolated from public mobile networks, to ones which use some dedicated infrastructure / management, alongside shared radio- or core-network elements provided by an MNO. They can be nationwide networks (for example, for utility grids), or highly localised, such as to a factory or hotel.

There are also various hybrids and nuances of all of this, such as private networks where certain functions are installed by, outsourced to, or managed by, telcos. It may be possible for users or devices to roam between private and public networks, for instance when a truck leaves a logistics facility with a local private network, and switches to the telco while it’s on the road.

Various government bodies – ranging from police forces to local council authorities – are also interested in creating private or shared 4G / 5G networks. Over the next 3-4 years, we can expect a wide diversity of approaches, and some very vague and fluid definitions from the industry.

Three building blocks for private networks

There are three main enablers (and numerous secondary drivers) behind the private network concept:

  • Availability of spectrum
  • Small cells and distributed radios
  • The move from 4G to 5G

A critical element in this is access to suitable spectrum for creating private networks. In recent years, many governments and regulatory authorities have started to make localised mobile licences available, suitable for covering enterprise sites, or wider areas such as cities. While private Wi-Fi and other networks have long been created with (free) unlicensed spectrum, this does not give the protections against contention and interference that more formal licensing enables. Other localised spectrum licenses have been given for point-to-point fixed links, temporary outside broadcast & events, or other purposes – but not cellular networks for normal mobile users. There are also discussions ongoing about making more national or wide-area spectrum available, suitable for mobile use in certain specialised verticals such as utilities.

Small cells and other types of enterprise-grade radio network (RAN) equipment are critical building- blocks for private mobile infrastructure, particularly indoors or on small/medium campus sites. They need to be low-cost, easy to install and operate, and ideally integrated with other IT and networking systems. While small cells have been around for 20 years or more, they have often been hard to deploy and manage. We are also seeing further innovation around distributed/cloud RAN which further increases the options for campus and in-building coverage systems.

5G – or more accurately the 5G era – changes the game in a number of ways. Firstly, IoT use-cases are becoming far more important, especially as analogue equipment and business processes become more connected and intelligent. Secondly, 5G brings new technical challenges, especially around the use of higher-frequency spectrum that struggles to go through walls – which highlights the paradox of telcos providing public network services on private property. Finally, with the advent of cloud-based and virtualised functions such as core networks, it is becoming easier to deploy and operate smaller infrastructures.

Some of the specialised skills requirements for building/running cellular networks can be reduced with automation, although this is still a significant obstacle for enterprises. This will drive significant demand for new tiers and types of managed services provider for private cellular – some of which will be satisfied by telcos, but which will also targeted by many others from towerco’s to systems integrators to cloud/Internet players.

It is worth stressing that this concept is not new. Private cellular networks have existed in small niches for 10-20 years. Railways have a dedicated version of 2G called GSM-R. Military squads and disaster- response teams can carry small localised base stations and controllers in their vehicles or even backpacks. Remote mines or oil-exploration sites have private wireless networks of various types. The author of this report first saw cellular small-cells in 2000, and worked on projects around enterprise adoption of private 2G as early as 2005.

Private and vertical cellular networks: Threats and opportunities aims to clarify the concept of “private” networks. It explores the domain of business-focused cellular networks, where the enterprise has some degree of ownership or control over the infrastructure – and, sometimes, the radio network itself. The report then sets out the motivations and use cases for private networks, as well as the challenges and obstacles faced.

This report is a joint exercise between STL Partners and affiliate Disruptive Analysis, which has covered this sector in depth for almost 20 years. Its founder Dean Bubley runs workshops on private cellular and neutral-host networks, as well as undertaking private projects and speaking engagements advising operators, vendors, regulators and investors on business models, spectrum policy and market dynamics. Please see deanbubley.com or @disruptivedean on Twitter for details and inquiries.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Public vs. non-public networks
    • Private network vs. private MVNO vs. slices
  • Motivations & use-cases for private networks
    • Business drivers for private cellular
    • Technical use-cases for private cellular
    • Industrial sites & IIoT
    • Enterprise/public in-building coverage
    • Neutral host networks (NHN)
    • Fixed 4G / 5G networks
  • Regulatory & spectrum issues
    • Other regulatory considerations
  • Building private networks – technology
    • Architectural choices, technology standards & industry bodies
  • The emerging private networks value chain
  • Conclusions & Recommendations
    • How large is the private network opportunity?
    • Challenges and obstacles for private networks
    • What is the implication for traditional telcos and MNOs?
    • Telcos’ relationship to project scope

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VoLTE: Voice beyond the phone call?

Introduction

Telephony is still necessary in the 4G era

Some people in the telecom industry believe that “voice is dead” – or, at least, that traditional phone calls are dying off. Famously, many younger mobile users eschew standalone realtime communications, instead preferring messaging loaded with images and emoji, via apps such as Facebook Messenger and WeChat, or those embedded e.g. in online gaming applications. At the other end of the spectrum, various forms of video-based communications are important, such as SnapChat’s disappearing video stories, as well as other services such as Skype and FaceTime.

Even for basic calling-type access, WhatsApp and Viber have grown huge, while assorted enterprise UC/UCaaS services such as Skype for Business and RingCentral are often “owning” the business customer base. Other instances of voice (and messaging and video) are appearing as secondary features “inside” other applications – games, social networks, enterprise collaboration, mobile apps and more – often enabled by the WebRTC standard and assorted platforms-as-a-service.

Smartphones and the advent of 4G have accelerated all these trends – although 3G networks have seen them as well, especially for messaging in developing markets. Yet despite the broad uptake of Internet-based messaging and voice/video applications, it is still important for mobile operators to provide “boring old phone calls” for mobile handset subscribers, not least in order to enable “ubiquitous connection” to friends, family and businesses – plus also emergency calls. Plenty of businesses still rely on the phone – and normal phone numbers as identifiers – from banks to doctors’ practices. Many of the VoIP services can “fall back” to normal telephony, or dial out (or in) from the traditional telco network. Many license terms mandate provision of voice capability.

This is true for both fixed and mobile users – and despite the threat of reaching “peak telephony”, there is a long and mostly-stable tail of calling that won’t be displaced for years, if ever.

Figure 1: Various markets are beyond “peak telephony” despite lower call costs

Source: Disruptive Analysis, National Regulators

In other words, even if usage and revenues are falling, telcos – and especially mobile operators – need to keep Alexander Graham Bell’s 140-year legacy alive. If the network transitions to 4G and all-IP, then the telephony service needs to do so as well – ideally with feature-parity and conformance to all the legacy laws and regulation.

(As a quick aside, it is worth noting that telephony is only one sort of “voice communication”, although people often use the terms synonymously. Other voice use-cases vary from conferencing, push-to-talk, audio captioning for the blind, voice-assistants like Siri and Alexa, karaoke, secure encrypted calls and even medical-diagnostics apps that monitor breathing noise. We discuss the relevance of non-telephony voice services for telcos later in this report).

4G phone calls: what are the options?

  • CSFB (Circuit-Switched Fallback): The connection temporarily drops from 4G, down to 3G or 2G. This enables a traditional non-IP (CS – circuit-switched) call to be made or received on a 4G phone. This is the way most LTE subscribers access telephony today.
  • VoLTE: This is a “pure” 4G phone call, made using the phone’s in-built dialler, the cellular IP connection and tightly-managed connectivity with prioritisation of voice packets, to ensure good QoS. It hooks into the telco’s IMS core network, from where it can either be directly connected to the other party (end-to-end over IP), go via a transit provider or exchange, or else it can interwork with the historic circuit-based phone network.
  • App-based calling: This involves making a VoIP call over the normal, best-efforts, data connection. The function could be provided by a telco itself (eg Reliance Jio’s 4GVoice app), an enterprise UC provider, or an Internet application like Skype or Viber. Increasingly, these applications are also integrated into phones “native dialler” interface and can share call-logs and other functions. [Note – STL’s Future of The Network research stream does not use the pejorative, obsolete and inaccurate term “OTT”.]

None of these three options is perfect.

Content:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Telephony is still necessary in the 4G era
  • 4G phone calls: what are the options?
  • The history of VoLTE
  • The Good, the Bad & the Ugly
  • The motivations for VoLTE deployment
  • The problems for VoLTE deployment?
  • Industry politics
  • Market Status & Forecasts
  • Business & Strategic Implications
  • Is VoLTE really just “ToLTE”?
  • Link to NFV & Cloud
  • GSMA Universal Profile: Heaven or Hell for Telcos?
  • Do telcos have a role in video communications?
  • Intersection with enterprise voice
  • Conclusions
  • Recommendations

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Various markets are beyond “peak telephony” despite lower call costs
  • Figure 2: VoLTE, mobile VoIP & LTE timeline
  • Figure 3: VoLTE coverage is often deployed progressively
  • Figure 4: LTE subscribers, by voice technology, 2009-2021