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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

korean wireless round-up

Owing to various client and travel commitments, I haven’t had a chance to fully write up a lot of what I learned in Korea, about innovations like WiBro wireless broadband, and DMB satellite mobile TV, as well as some of the more general trends in mobility.

However, I want to highlight a few things that appear to differentiate the Korean approach to wireless versus Europe and much of the rest of the world.

Perhaps the most obvious is just how much “Korea Inc.” is pulling together on WiBro. This is represented by a combination of the government (through 2.3GHz spectrum licencing), SKT and KTF in services roll-out, and Samsung and (to a lesser extent) LG on network infrastructure and devices. I got the distinct impression that WiBro is being set up as a showcase for all these firms to establish and extend their global position in the coming major transition to WiMAX. As a sidenote, it will be interesting to see if any of these companies can lock down a significant IPR position and patent portfolio, around the practicalities of implementing a WiMAX network. This could, for example, give Samsung a much stronger position in the wireless infrastructure market than has been the case in the cellular domain in the past.

Next is the Korean attitude (and reverence) towards technology. It’s very fashionable for many European and US companies to downplay the importance of underlying enablers. “Oh, we don’t want to focus on the nuts and bolts, it’s the content / services / applications / user experience that’s important”. Nonsense. In many cases – and the Koreans get this – if you bring the technology (and get it right, and get it early), the rest will follow, even if it’s not obvious to begin with. Both science and technology (especially IT & computing) have always worked this way, and it reflects badly on many western telecom companies that they are trying to present a fuzzier image now, largely in order to please mass-media and relatively tech-phobic populations. It was very notable that a slide from KT listed as key success factors “network, terminals and services”, and not brand or user experience.

[It’s also notable just how tech-savvy (and science/tech-educated) Koreans are. More generally, a similar story applies in China and India as well – just look at the science student population in Asia, and the attitudes of their peers, versus the trendy sneering about science and engineering geekiness in countries like the UK.]

So, in Europe, the idea of fast, open, mobile broadband would be viewed as scary. “An IP pipe??! But what about commoditisation? Can’t we just bury our heads in the sand instead and hope it goes away?” Operators are intensely defensive. “and, er, we’re really scared of Skype, so we’re going to price this stupidly high to skim the market and deter VoIP, and try and create some sort of allegedly value-add service to flog to our customers instead of giving them what they really want”. In my view, this is a surefire way to get hit much harder by the IP steamroller in a couple of years time.

But in Korea, not one of the presenting companies at the iMobicon conference in any way implied this was a major concern. The attitude seemed to be more like “sure, some people will want to use Skype or something else competitive. But to be honest, we’re not going to be able to stop them, so instead we’ll compete ourselves, creating our own VoIP and other IP applications that are better, easier to sell and use, and integrate with users’ other services”. This is much more of the “if we can’t beat them, then let’s join them….and then beat them at their own game” philosophy. Oh, and let’s have LOTS of bandwidth while we’re at it.

Another key observation is the aggression of the major Korean operators in extending their reach overseas. The SKT/Earthlink MVNO deal in the US is likely to be just the tip of a new iceberg. I got the distinct impression that the Korean operators feel they could be more successful in exporting mobile content platforms than DoCoMo has been with iMode. They characterised the iMode business model as being too inflexible, and seemed to suggest that a variant of WIPI and extra application layers could have wider applicability.

This is also reflected in the Korea operators focus on service brand (eg for their mobile music services like MelOn, or segment-focused service plans), rather than their overall corporate brand and image. This is extremely different to the Voda-style “it’s all got to be bright red with the same logo” approach to branding.

It’s also interesting to see an apparent inversion of the usual timescales for service development and investment horizon in Korea. Service trial and deployment schedules seem hugely compressed. WiBro commercial trials are scheduled for Feb and March 2006, with full switch-on intended for around June. No unwieldy 9-month trials and 4-month subsequent fiddling about with final service definition and launch.

Conversely, capacity for things like network backhaul is put in with a view to the long term. Korean cell sites typically have metro ethernet fibre connections. No short-term, build-it-incrementally “oh, just put in an E1 or two, and maybe upgrade to microwave or fibre some other time” mentality. This is one of the reasons why it is now simple to overlay WiBro, or future terrestrial mobile TV transmission on the cellular infrastructure.

Lastly, a few more “snippets” that I don’t have time to delve into now:

- Koreans seem happier with “chunkier” handsets then I expected, emphasising function over small size.
- Lots of slide form-factor devices and “swivellable” screens for horizonal viewing
- Somewhat surprisingly, there was much more emphasis on integrating WiBro and DMB into handsets, rather than WiFi, which was conspicuously downplayed. I think this fits with my general view that integrating WiFi into phones is much more difficult than expected, as it is not inherently a “service-oriented” technology, but is usually privately controlled.
- The WiFi hotspots in places like airports and the convention centre automatically tried to log my PC on, proactively looking for a certificate on my PC, rather than waiting for me to use the connection manager & sign on manually.
- Korea probably benefits from having a few very dense urban areas, which makes it easier to roll out new services more rapidly
- One conference participant (I forgot who) said that they had trialled implementing WIPI on top of Symbian – but decided against it.
- LG reckoned they have their handset development timescales down to as little as 3-4 months in some cases.

One last comment that underscores the “techiness” of Korean mobile…. Samsung’s convergence roadmap goes rather further than just “basic” mobile TV and FMC function. Their presenter gets the prize for the first cellular presentation I’ve seen which mentions nanotech and biotech as being in line as future handset technologies….. put me on the waiting list for a DNA-locked phone please.

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