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

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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$1.4tn of benefits in 2030: 5G’s impact on industry verticals

Understanding the 5G opportunity in other industries

The aim of this report is to highlight the impact that 5G will have on global GDP between 2020 and 2030. To do this, we have focused on eight industries where we feel 5G will have the largest impact. Often when 5G is discussed, the focus is on the impact it will have on the consumer market. Here, we argue that 5G will unlock significant new revenue opportunities in the enterprise space, enabling innovative use cases that are currently impossible to scale commercially (with existing technologies).

Insight from this report is explored further in the following publications:

The document was researched and written independently by STL Partners, supported by Huawei. STL’s conclusions are entirely independent and built on ongoing research into the future of telecoms. STL Partners has written widely on the topic of 5G, including a recent two-part series into the short- and long-term opportunities unlocked by 5G, and lessons that can be learnt from early movers.

Comparing apples with apples: How to compare nascent 5G with established 4G

If you compare the technological specifications for 3GPP release 14 and 3GPP release 15 (the first 5G release), you might be underwhelmed. Despite the hype that 5G will be transformative, it does not appear to be delivering much more than incremental increases in speed and reliability. But, of course, 4G is now a mature form of connectivity (having been in-life for 6+ years) whereas 5G is still nascent.

To compare apples with apples, it makes sense to compare 5G release 16, where capabilities such as ultra-reliable low-latency and network slicing are being added, with LTE today.

Mature 5G benchmarked against the capabilities of mature 4G

Mature 5G benchmarked against mature 4G

Source: ITU, Nokia, ublox, gps world

Of course, these figures represent a best-case scenario occurring in a laboratory environment. This is true for both the 4G and 5G numbers. It’s also true that, in reality, it will take time before we see commercialised rollout of enhanced mobile broadband (“pure 5G”) rather than enhanced mobile broadband with 4G fall-back alongside fixed wireless access. Despite this, these figures make clear that when 5G reaches maturity, it will far outstrip the capabilities of 4G, and unlock new use cases.

Our assumption is that by 2025 5G technology will be mature, enabling massive M2M / IoT use cases as well as those that require ultra-reliable low-latency communications. Several of the 5G use cases we’ll go on to explore in more detail are reliant on this technology, so it is important to acknowledge that their commercialisation is only likely to start from around 2023 and in many markets they still won’t be fully deployed in 2030.

It’s not all about LTE: 5G must be compared to all available technology

Mobile is not the only form of connectivity used by enterprises. Plenty of industries are also making use of Wi-Fi, LPWAN, Zigbee, Bluetooth and fixed connectivity as part of their overall connectivity solution. When 5G is rolled out, in some cases, it will need to integrate with these existing technologies rather than replace them. The table below summarises some of the key benefits and shortcomings of current technologies, including highlighting the sorts of situations in which industries are making use of them.

Current technologies will not be entirely replaced by 5G, but it can address some of they key shortcomings

current technologies will not be entirely replaced by 5G, but it can address some of their key shortcomings

There are clear scenarios where 5G will be superior to existing technologies and bring significant benefits to industrial users. Ultimately, in particular, 5G will enable:

  1. Low latency and high bandwidth requirements for wireless connectivity
  2. Massive IoT through ability to handle high cell density
  3. Ultra-reliable and secure connectivity.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Executive Summary
    • 5G enabled solutions are estimated to add c.$1.4 trillion to global GDP in 2030
    • Operators must embrace new business models to unlock significant revenues with 5G
    • Recommendations for operators: how to capitalise on the 5G opportunity
  • Introduction
    • Background
    • Comparing apples with apples: how to compare nascent 5G with established 4G
    • It’s not all about LTE: 5G must be compared to all available technology
    • 5G deployment: 5G will mature over the next ten years
  • 5G will add more than $1.4 trillion to the global economy by 2030
  • Mobile network operator strategic options with 5G
    • 5G alone will not change the game for operators
    • Strategic options for operators to add more value with 5G
  • 5G-enabled digital transformation in healthcare
    • Example 5G use case: Remote patient monitoring
    • Implications for telcos
  • 5G-enabled digital transformation in manufacturing
    • 5G can create $740bn in additional GDP by 2030
    • Example 5G use case: Advanced predictive maintenance
    • Implications for telcos
  • Conclusions for operators: how to capitalise on the 5G opportunity

Table of Figures

  • Figure 1: Mature 5G benchmarked against the capabilities of mature 4G
  • Figure 2: Current technologies will not be entirely replaced by 5G, but it can address some of their key shortcomings
  • Figure 3: Forecast of 5G deployment in major regions
  • Figure 4: Responses from industry surveys
  • Figure 5: 5G will contribute ~$1.4 trillion to global GDP by 2030
  • Figure 6: Manufacturing, energy & extractives and media, sports & entertainment industries will see the largest upticks to their industry thanks to 5G use cases
  • Figure 7: In 2030, manufacturing and construction will be the largest industry sectors (in 2030)
  • Figure 8: High income countries will see almost 75% of the benefit of 5G in 2025, but the share is more even across all geographies by 2030
  • Figure 9: 4G rollout did not produce sustainable revenue increase
  • Figure 10: What should telcos’ role be in 5G B2B?
  • Figure 11: As telcos move beyond just connectivity, they can increase their share of the wallet
  • Figure 12: Telcos must focus efforts in specific verticals – some are already doing this
  • Figure 13: Global impact of 5G on healthcare across four key contact points
  • Figure 14: Remote patient monitoring enables wearables to send data about the patient to the hospital for monitoring
  • Figure 15: Estimated impact of 5G-enabled remote patient monitoring
  • Figure 16: The potential roles for telcos can within healthcare
  • Figure 17: The TELUS Health Exchange as a point of coordination
  • Figure 18: There is opportunity for telcos’ to play multiple roles higher up the value chain in healthcare
  • Figure 19: Estimated impact of 5G on manufacturing GDP (USD Billions) by use case
  • Figure 20: Advanced predictive maintenance enables many sensors to send data about machinery for monitoring and optimisation

Elisa Smart Factory: How to win over industry leaders in two years

Elisa’s Smart Factory solution

As STL Partners has described in The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms, moves are afoot in the global digital economy to improve the efficiency of resource utilisation by combining the digital and physical worlds in new and innovative ways. Elisa’s Smart Factory solution is a prime example of how telcos can address this need.

Coordinating manufacturing

In the case of manufacturing industries, understanding and managing the flow and progress of materials and goods through production processes has long been a critical component of business success.

Managing and continually improving complex processes is central to operational success on the supply-side of the manufacturing industry. This includes everything from a floor manager overseeing production, to time-and-motion studies, total quality management, just-in-time production, robotics and automation, and many other managerial and operational approaches.

A number of new concepts and practices are now emerging, driven by the same imperatives but arising to a degree independently and in different disciplines, for example:

  • Industry 4.0 ‘the fourth industrial revolution’ – the trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing industries
  • Digital twins – a virtualised version of a real thing, a bit like an avatar but for a thing rather than a person. It can simulate the real item, interact with it, and exchange information and commands with other digital twins based on pre-defined rules
  • The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – connecting industrial devices, sensors, equipment, etc., to gather and exchange information, and sometimes perform remote control

Numerous companies have embarked on the journey to incorporate and use such connected technologies. However the degree of progress made varies greatly.

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A growing industry

Connecting machinery is far from a new idea. Many industrial machines and processes are already highly connected and automated, and this goes back as far as sixty years in SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems in electricity power station control.

What is new is the ability and desire to link these systems together and allow data exchange and a degree of autonomy within managed bounds. This can optimise performance, improve productivity, and ultimately lead to new operational business models.

There are many different possible paths to achieving these ends. For instance, powerful industrial players and consortia are all trying to establish leadership in different ways. Heavyweight contenders on the industry side include GE, Bosch, Siemens, and PTC, with consortia including the somewhat mystically titled All Seeing Alliance.

STL Partners will explore the wider opportunity and main players competing in this field in an upcoming report titled ‘Why we need an Internet for Things’.

Enter Elisa, the innovative Finlander

Elisa is the leading Finnish mobile and fixed operator and No.2 player in Estonia. It has 6.2 million customers.

Yet despite its relatively small footprint compared to some of the industry giants, STL Partners regards Elisa as one of the most innovative operators in the world, and certainly in Europe. Indeed, 18% of Finnish business customers say that it is the most innovative IT actor in its market, compared to 6% for CGI and 5% for Fujitsu.

One of its notable recent innovations is a totally automated Network Operations Centre (NOC). To create this, Elisa had to go through its own journey of process engineering and automation.

Elisa now resells its Elisa Automate NOC solutions to other operators. Similarly, it has leveraged the IP and learning to create Elisa Smart Factory, a solution to help global enterprise customers achieve the levels of success Elisa has achieved itself.

Our thanks to Henri Korpi, EVP New Business Development, and Kari Terho, General Manager, Smart Factory at Elisa, who talked to us openly about the proposition, the business, and how it came into existence.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary 
  • Introduction
  • Understanding manufacturing customers’ problems
  • Unplanned downtime
  • Unstable production quality
  • Lack of visibility
  • Practical obstacles to smart manufacturing
  • How Elisa approached the solution
  • Creating a service operation centre
  • Smart Factory’s claims
  • How did Elisa get here?
  • “There’s loads of discussion of which platform is best. What you actually need is a solution”
  • Conclusions
  • Success factors and lessons for others
  • Challenges
  • Next steps

Figures:

  1. Downtime, data usage and visibility – the three dogs of manufacturing
  2. Elisa Smart Factory Schematic
  3. Elisa Smart Factory screenshot
  4. Typical business objectives of Smart Factory solutions
  5. What an Elisa 3D Digital Twin looks like
  6. A high level view from Elisa’s “End-to-End Cockpit”
  7. Results from Elisa’s automated NOC

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