Korea recalls mobile operators’ 5G licenses

Two of South Korea’s three mobile network operators have been asked to hand back their 5G licenses in the 28 GHz frequency band, it emerged recently.

Staggeringly, for one of the world’s most advanced mobile markets, the telcos have failed to meet rollout requirements for their high-band spectrum and as such the government is flexing its regulatory muscle.

KT and LG U+ have had their 28 GHz licenses canceled for falling far short of installing the required number of base stations in that band, the Ministry of Science and ICT announced last week, in a Korean language statement that for some days escaped the notice of the Western media.

SKT gets to hold on to its license for now, albeit with its five-year duration cut by six months, because its performance was slightly better, but it is under strict instructions to meet the original rollout target by the end of May 2023 or it too will lose its license.

South Korea’s mobile operators acquired their 28 GHz spectrum – 800 MHz each – alongside 3.5 GHz frequencies back in 2018, with the band being available for use by the end of that year. The license conditions required them to deploy 15,000 base stations using 28 GHz within three years.

The ministry has just published the results of an evaluation process of both bands, which showed that all three operators are fulfilling the conditions of their 3.5 GHz licences. That’s hardly surprising, given that the three were among the first in the world to launch 5G in 2019 and indications are that the technology is taking off in South Korea.

Indeed, according to CPR Wirelesswhich vaguely cites local press reports with government data, 5G accounted for one third of all Korea’s mobile subscriptions as of the end of July – that’s 25.1 million 5G subs – and over 72% of traffic.

“However, despite the government’s efforts, telecom operators’ willingness to activate the 28 GHz band is still low,” the Ministry of Science and ICT said, in a Korean language statement.

The government’s various initiatives include pilot projects at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics; various other pilot schemes backed by government funding; and a subway WiFi upgrade project using 28 GHz for backhaul.

“As of now, more than three years after the frequency was allocated, the 28 GHz band sites built by telecom operators account for only 10 percent of the initially promised volume, and unlike overseas, there are no smartphone terminals supporting the 28 GHz band in Korea,” it said.

It seems to be the competition with overseas market that troubles the Korean government the most.

The US and Japan are pushing strongly on 28 GHz, it said, noting that Verizon will have deployed 45,000 base stations in that band by the end of this year, while Japan’s four MNOs had together rolled out 22,000 by July. Further, 33 countries, including Australia and India, are preparing to allocate spectrum or provide related services, it said, while more than 50 types of smartphone equipped with 28 GHz chipsets have been released worldwide, with 61 million-plus distributed, as of last year.

With the use of mmWave frequencies expected to grow in future 6G mobile communications, the immature state of the Korean 28 GHz ecosystem “is very worrisome, in that it will prevent Korea from maintaining its status as a mobile communication powerhouse,” the ministry said.

A formal hearing to cancel the two licenses and impose new targets on SKT will be held in December. Should the cancellation go ahead, the ministry will start work on a reallocation process, although it concedes that it “may be difficult to attract new operators investing in the 5G 28 GHz band.” As such, it will undertake a variety of measures to draw interest and help would-be operators reduce their investment burden.

That’s pretty forward-thinking. But there is still a question mark over who would take on licenses that telcos like KT and LG U+ failed to use.

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