South Korea Telcos Launch World's First VoLTE

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South Korea's network carriers raced to become the world's first VoLTE providers Tuesday as they announced plans to offer voice over LTE (Long Term Evolution) services starting Wednesday. So far, Samsung's Galaxy S III and LG's Optimus II are the only smartphones in the market ready for VoLTE technology.

Korea's largest operator, SK Telecom, and the third largest, LG Uplus, have launched so-called HD Voice or high definition call service using 4G LTE. KT, the second largest carrier, has said that its VoLTE will take off this October.

By using wider frequency bandwidth to pick up low and high sound waves, the Korean operators will provide call quality that is about 40 percent improved over that offered on an 3G network, according to Irene Kim, SKT's spokeswoman.

"[It will] make customers feel as if the person on the other end of the line is sitting right next to him or her," Kim said.

VoLTE can use a frequency bandwidth of 50--7000 hertz compared to a 3G voice call service that is optimized for a 300--2400 hertz voice band. The service will also shorten call connection time down to a quarter of a second, compared to an average of five seconds on 3G, Kim said. The carriers will charge the same rates for VoLTE service as for the current voice calls at 1.8 Korean won per second (US$.09/minute).

Due to the country's high penetration of smartphones and users' growing thirst for data-heavy multimedia content, the local operators' competition to offer speedy and reliable connections has been more intense than in other countries.

"All three network carriers have built their own LTE networks throughout the country and they are on a similar page in terms of the quality of the service, but only a few LTE devices are available at the moment," said Jae-min Ahn, an analyst at Kiwoom Securities in Seoul.

Samsung's Galaxy S III is the only LTE phone currently available in the market with an HD Voice capability. Consumers can use the service once they upgrade the software, which will be available by the end of this month. The Galaxy Note 2, which is scheduled for release on Aug. 29, will feature a VoLTE option as well.

For LG's Optimus II, which relies on Qualcomm's chip, the company has not said when its software upgrade for VoLTE service will be available. LG Uplus said it has seven other VoLTE-capable phones lined up.

So far, Korean mobile carriers are about a year ahead of other global players in the LTE market, including the world's largest LTE provider Verizon Wireless, MetroPCS and HTC, said Neil Mawston, an analyst with Strategy Analytics.

"South Korea has the most advanced LTE entry market, U.S. is also moving fast with MetroPCS being the leading carrier, but it is by far a Korea-centric market," Mawston said.

Would-be market entrants are contending with issues like spectrum limitation, but MetroPCS and Verizon aims to commercialize VoLTE technology by the end of this year or early 2013. VoLTE-enabled phones will take 2 percent of the whole LTE handsets in 2013, Mawston said.

SK Telecom has about 26 million subscribers, more than half of Korean telecom users, and it expects to reach 7 million LTE users by the end of this year. LG Uplus and KT are each aiming for 4 million this year.

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