By Kim Tong-hyung
After dragging its heels for months, Korea’s telecommunications regulator finally came around and declared WIPI, a local software standard mandated for data-enabled mobile phones, a mistake.
The decision will bring an end to the dreadful wait by Korean gadget lovers of iPhone, Apple’s latest product to create a global craze, with wireless carriers KTF and SK Telecom allowed to release the handsets next spring.
Following a lengthy debate, commissioners of the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) Wednesday agreed to retire the home-made standard specifications on April 1 next year, lifting what had effectively been a trade barrier for foreign electronics makers like Apple and Nokia.
“Mobile-phone operators have been required to use the WIPI mobile platform on their handsets, but considering global industry trends toward the use of general-purpose mobile operating systems, we concluded that there was a need to allow carriers the freedom to decide whether to use WIPI or not,” said Shin Yong-sub, the director of KCC’s policy bureau.
“Consumers will also be able to choose from a wider variety of products and benefit from increased price competition from handset makers,” he said.
Currently, about 86 percent of all mobile phones used in Korea are WIPI-enabled. The KCC had discussed whether to phase out the WIPI requirements over a span of six months or a year, but the suggestion was turned down with commissioners concluding that mobile carriers wouldn’t be able to replace their WIPI-based services quickly anyway.
There were calls within the KCC to abolish the WIPI requirements immediately on Jan. 1, but the commissioners decided to wait three more months to prevent “shocking” the domestic industry, apparently a decision that would soothe Korean electronics makers.
The decision to scrap the WIPI requirements is expected to renew competition in the local handset market, which has been dominated by local giants Samsung and LG.
Mobile-phone operators had been aggressively engaging with foreign handset makers to diversify their handset offerings. SK Telecom, which controls more than 50 percent of the country’s wireless customers, is already offering handsets from Taiwanese maker HTC, and expects to release the iconic Blackberry handsets, produced by Canada’s RIM, by the end of the year. The company is also planning to release handsets from Nokia, the world’s top mobile-phone maker, during the first half of next year.
SK Telecom has confirmed its interest in adding iPhone to its lineup, although the company has been less aggressive than KTF, the runner-up wireless carrier, which has been putting up a stout challenge against its industry rival in the third-generation (3G) market.
Both operators are declining to comment on whether they secured a commitment from Apple, and some believe the difficult talks over revenue sharing and handset prices had been a bigger reason for iPhone’s delayed debut than the much-maligned WIPI.
However, an industry source told The Korea Times that the talks with KTF have been all but finalized, although SK Telecom chief executive Kim Shin-bae recently told reporters that he expects his company to be the first to release iPhone.
“KTF could have released the iPhone in December if it had been allowed to,” said the source.
WIPI, which was imposed on wireless carriers on April 1, 2005, originally intended to allow interoperability for mobile content providers, who had to redevelop their applications for different carriers that were each using different mobile platforms.
WIPI was designed to run both Brew and Java applications, then used by KTF and LG Telecom, respectively, but the software standard was quickly blamed for preventing certain handsets from entering the local market, with foreign makers reluctant to release WIPI-enabled products just for Korea.
Industry analysts believe the increased influx of foreign handsets may strengthen the dominance of SK Telecom and KTF. Unlike SK Telecom and KTF, both using WCDMA technology for their 3G services, LG Telecom, the No. 3 carrier, is one of the few global carriers to use CDMA EV-DO Revision (A) to provide mobile data services, thus limiting its sourcing of foreign handsets.
“The abolition of the WIPI requirement will allow SK Telecom and KTF to release iPhone and other quality handsets from foreign makers, which will help them boost their average revenue per user (ARPU) through increased mobile data sales,”‘ said Stan Jung, an analyst from Woori Investment and Securities.