In a significant development in the telecommunications sector, South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT has withdrawn SK Telecom’s licence to operate 5G services in the 28 GHz band. The decision comes in the wake of the telco’s failure to meet its rollout requirements.
SK Telecom’s Licence Withdrawal: A Long Time Coming
The Ministry of Science and ICT announced its decision to pull the licence on Friday. However, this move has been anticipated for some time. Last year, SK Telecom’s major rivals, KT Corp and LG U+, had their 28 GHz licences cancelled for the same reason. SK Telecom managed to retain its concession, albeit narrowly, and received a warning instead.
Failure to Meet Rollout Requirements
Six months after the warning, SK Telecom is now required to hand back its licence. The telco has only deployed a fraction of the number of base stations it was required to operate in the band. Choi Woo-hyuk, director of radio wave policy at the Ministry of Science and ICT, expressed regret over the outcome, despite the government’s active efforts.
The 28 GHz Spectrum and Licence Conditions
In 2018, the three South Korean mobile operators each acquired 800 MHz of 28 GHz spectrum, alongside 3.5 GHz frequencies. The band was available for use by the end of that year. The licence conditions required them to deploy 15,000 base stations using 28 GHz within three years. However, an investigation by the Ministry last year revealed that the telcos had built only 10% of the number of sites they had committed to, leading to the cancellation of the licences of KT and LG U+.
SK Telecom’s Performance and Future Plans
SK Telecom had performed slightly better than its rivals, but its licence duration was reduced by six months to four and a half years. The telco was warned to meet its original rollout target by the end of May. However, as of 4 May, SK Telecom had built out just 1,650 28 GHz sites and had no plans to build any more sites in the band before the end of the month. Consequently, the Ministry ruled that SK Telecom had failed to meet its licence requirements.
The Future of the 28 GHz Band in South Korea
The government has not provided much detail about its plans for the licences, apart from a vague comment from Choi Woo-hyuk about making efforts to enhance the level of 5G service by promoting competition in the telecommunications market. Last year, the government had discussed reallocating the licences to other players and providing financial incentives to reduce their investment burden. However, no progress seems to have been made in this regard.
The withdrawal of SK Telecom’s licence leaves South Korea without high-band spectrum use for 5G, at a time when other economies like the US and Japan are advancing the mmWave ecosystem. This situation is not ideal for the government, and it is likely to take steps to revitalize the band in the near future.