Business in Korea

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Internet, Mobile, IT and industry in Korea

Interview YunHo Chung, managing partner at Veyond Partners

I will start  with a really vast topic. Which are according to you the roots of Korea’s advance in telecoms ? The role of the successive governments, the large investments from the chaebols, the consumer habits ?

I think there can be several reasons of the Korean advance in the telecoms industry and I want to point out 3 things as the big factors. number 1 could be the role of the government, number 2 can be a strong telecom companies role, number 3 can be the very high demanding customers.

Number 1 can be the government sector. Government is very crucial especially for the telecoms related infrastructure. For 10 years, we have been thinking the broadband as a very utility kind of thing. It’s a very useful thing but at the same time we regard it as a social infrastructure. That means government should invest a lot of money and time and ressources and we thought that this kind of thing was very much led by the government. First, we developed our own technology, not only by the goal of the big companies but also by the Korean R&D organizations such as ETRI. ETRI is one of the leading telecom related R&D organization with very talented people. They created very strong technologies and provided them to the private sector. Another explanation is regulation. Regulation does not allowed many competitors to get to the market because it’s a very heavy investment. Every private company when they invest want to get a lot of ROI from there. So if there is a lot of players the investment will not be properly lay down. So for example in Korea we do not have MVNO. If there is a lot of MVNO out there the competition could be so tenace and not many people would be interested to lay down the infrastructure. In European arena there are such companies like Virgin Mobile, but in Korea, still MVNO is not allowed which means the private companies have the chance to make a lot of money and the government regulated to promote competition in a very efficient way.

Number 2 reason as  I told you can be the very active and strong role of private companies such as Samsung or LG. Those players sell a lot of handsets and new technologies. At the same time we got very big companies called KT and SK which are the service providers. There is a very good combination between the service providers and the manufacturers. Also Korea is a very concentrated country so it’s much easier to lay down the broadband infrastructure and make money from that.

The last thing can be the very high demand of the customers. Korean customers are well known for adopting new things compare to European or American people who are not very fascinated by the new technologies, Korean are very technology driven and at the same time we have the tendency to work very hard or very fast. In korean we have the word pali-pali. We have to work very hard and we are hastening in many ways, we dot no accept very slow things. This whole combination made Korea one of the leading country in terms of the telecom industry.

Recently Korea have seen KT, the leading landline phone operator, merge with its subsidiary KTF, the second mobile operator of the country, will we see more concentration in telecoms ?

I think that Korea is now nearly the ending stage of the consolidation. There is a very strong tendency that the telecom companies are trying to have everything under one roof, which means KT the biggest fixed line company is now embracing its subsidiary company KTF, the second largest mobile operator. Not only they have fixe et mobile, they also have IPTV, internet portals, things like that.

Number 2 group can be SK. They have a very strong presence in the mobile sector and also very strong in the internet sector because they have a subsidiary called  SK Communications widely known for its social network service named Cyworld. About one year ago they acquired a broadband company called Hanaro Telecom now renamed SK Broadband. So they have SK Broadband, SK Communications, SK Telecom, SK Telink for the long distance calls. These are the two big players.

The other possibility you can see is the consolidation of LG Group. LG has a very strong position in Electronics especially as a handset maker but at the same time they have the number 3 mobile network : LG Telecom, and they have a strong recent move to broadband using the bakcbone of the broadband called LG Powercom. What we can predict is these 3 big players will be competing and I don’t think there will be much more room for other players except KT, SK and LG will play a critical role and I think the consolidation is nearly done. Maybe there will be some new players, but they will be niche players, they cannot become the main driving force.

So this is about the operators, now what about the manufacturers ? Since the Wipi is not mandatory anymore in Korea, do you expect any significant change in the hierarchy of phone manufacturers in the local market ? Can Nokia or Sony-Ericsson gain significant market shares ? With traditional terminals or smarphones ?

I am asked this question very often by foreign experts, the correspondant of the Wall Street Journal asked me the same question last year. If I say the conclusion first, yes, I am sure there will be more possibilities for foreign players. When you talk about the 5 big handsets makers, Number 1 is Nokia, Number 2 is Samsung, Number 3 is LG, Number 4 is Motorola, Number 5 is Sony Ericsson. In Korea, Samsung and LG are dominating the market. There is no Nokia, there is no Sony Ericsson,  Motorola is in Korea but not that big.

But the point is the handset industry is changing a lot recently with the arrival of the iPhone. We are now moving away from the traditional handset to the smart handset. In Korea RIM (Blackberry) arrived and some specific smart handsets companies like HTC or Sony Ericsson with Experia. I think there is a good opportunity for the foreign players. But having said that, you have to understand that Samsung and LG are really strong players and having doing this business for many years and they do have also the bargaining power, they know the very demanding Korean consumers. There is not a very high possibility for players who are not able to fill their needs. Samsung and LG are testing their very good handsets in Korea while Nokia is competing in Korea with a very old outdated model. Why should koreans get interested in this old fashioned model. If they want to come to Korea, they have to come in a more appropriate way and I am sure for that reason, and this is my personal opinion, that RIM and the iPhone will make some good impact because they have very specific technologies edge and at the same time very good features. I don’t think others will be very powerfull especially Motorola, Sony Ericsson, or Nokia are not anymore sexy to people.

Between their high investments in Wibro and the little success of the service, Korean operators are in an uncomfortable position. What is the future of Wibro according to you ?

Wibro, in other words mobile Wimax has a mixed outcome in different countries. I think that Wibro will no perform very well in Korea because there is already good infrastructures. We have already FFTH, we are in the stage of 3.5G with HSDPA/HSUPA and also very strong connections with broadband, Wifi is very much deployed, so why should we use the Wibro ? Wibro is a Korean developed technology so the governent wants to make it a success but the private companies are not anymore interested by it because if they want to lay down the infrastructures it will cost a lot and it will not give the required ROI.

But when we talk about the emerging countries, such as India, China, Russia, Southern America many countries lack the broadband infrastructures. Using traditional bradband infrastructures cost a lot but Wimax is a relatively cheap and easy to use and already commercialy proven so it’s much better than LTE. LTE is still evolutionary and can’t be in the market before 3 or 4 years time. Wibro is growing very fast especially in countries of central Asia like Kazakhstan, Afghanistan so I think that even if it is not a success in Korea, it will work very well in other countries.

Despite a very high adoption rate, mobile TV can be considered as a commercial failure in Korea. According to you, what is the appropriate business model : subscription or advertising-based and why ?

Korea is well known as a pioneer of mobile TV and among the different technologies standard like DMB or DBBH, we adopted DMB. DMB technology can be divided in two categories. One is the satellite DMB operated by TU Media, again a subsidiary of SK Telecom and another which is terrestrial DMB operated by the traditional broadcasters.

S DMB and T DMB are operated under different models : T DMB uses the advertisement model which is quite natural for broadcasters but S DMB cannot rely on advertisment because mobile TV is a relatively new medium and not may advertisers will trust this one and in order to make the ROI they have to charge a lot subscribers. Mobile TV was successful in terms of the deployment but not in business terms because the companies who are operating the DMB are not making good money. The reason is that there is many alternatives out there. DMB is good when you are out on the move but mobile TV doesn’t provide you the full experience because it is a very small thing. The quality is very great but at the same time this has limits. I can use T DMB without paying so why people should use the S DMB which is at least 10 dollars a month.

I think the advertisement model will work well. One good example of success is American, even not from the mobile TV sector, it is the growing power of Hulu.com which is an advertisement based model. Hulu is free, driven by advertisement and provide really good content which is the good combination. People are becoming more and more picky so they are not going to pay. I personally think the advertisement model will work much better.

Even in a period of crisis when advertisers are cutting their budget ?

I have been studying in UK so I know the situation in UK quite well, people who wants to watch the English Premier league they cannot watch on BBC, they have to buy the SKY satellite and they pay a lot of money, but people are watching that because there is content. Content is always the king and if I am a big fan of English Premier League either I go to the pub or I buy satellite TV.

So paying model might work with very specific high quality content ?

Of course. There is someting very interesting in Korea. Koreans are very fascinating by baseball, TU Media had the exclusivity of the World Baseball Classics this year. At that time people subscribed a lot which means for exclusive content, people are willing to pay. I can predict that contents such as adult contents, such as specific news, let’s say Bloomberg will work as you cannot see on T DMB.

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