South Korea cancels SKT's 28 GHz 5G licence

South Korea has withdrawn SK Telecom's licence to operate 5G services in the 28 GHz band, the telco having failed to meet its rollout requirements.

Mary Lennighan

May 15, 2023

3 Min Read
5G signal Communication Mast Concept
5G mobile signal Communication Mast (cell tower) Super fast data streaming concept. 3D illustration.

South Korea has withdrawn SK Telecom’s licence to operate 5G services in the 28 GHz band, the telco having failed to meet its rollout requirements.

The Ministry of Science and ICT announced its decision to pull the licence on Friday, but the move has been a fair while coming. The operator’s major rivals KT Corp and LG U+ had their 28 GHz licences cancelled last year for the same reason, but SKT held on to its concession by the skin of its teeth and escaped with a warning.

Now, six months on, it too is having to hand back its licence, having deployed only a fraction of the number of base stations it was required to operate in the band.

“It is regrettable that this result has finally come about despite the government’s active efforts so far,” said Choi Woo-hyuk, director of radio wave policy at the Ministry of Science and ICT, in a Korean language statement confirming the licence withdrawal.

The three South Korean mobile operators each acquired 800 MHz of 28 GHz spectrum, alongside 3.5 GHz frequencies, in 2018, with the band being 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. But an investigation on the part of the last year Ministry showed that the telcos had built only 10% of the number of sites they had committed to, which led to it pulling the licences of the worst offenders: KT and LG U+.

SKT had performed slightly better, but still had its licence duration reduced by six months to four and a half years. And it was warned to meet its original rollout target by the end of May.

We’re not there yet, but the Ministry said it had evaluated developments at SKT to date and as of 4 May the telco had built out just 1,650 28 GHz sites. Further, it learnt that the telco had no plans to build any more sites in the band before the end of the month, thus it is able to act early and rule that SKT has failed to meet its licence requirements. It will hold a hearing to formalise things – as it did for the other two – but to all intents and purposes, SKT’s 28 GHz licence has gone back to the state.

This time around, the government did not have a lot to say about its plans for the licences, aside from a fairly vague comment from Choi Woo-hyuk: “We will make efforts so that the people can enjoy a higher level of 5G service by vitalizing competition in the telecommunications market,” he said.

Last year the government was talking about reallocating the licences to other players, along with a number of incentives to draw interest: we’re talking financial incentives to help would-be 28 GHz operators reduce their investment burden. Nothing seems to have materialised on that score, and its statement announcing the SKT licence withdrawal has no additional detail.

That leaves South Korea without high-band spectrum use for 5G at a time when certain other economies – the US and Japan to name a couple of big ones – are pushing the mmWave ecosystem forward. That’s not a comfortable position for the government, so it will doubtless try to do something to inject some life into the band in the not-too-distant future.

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About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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