Apple's universally popular handset, iPhone 3G, won't be reaching Korean markets anytime soon. / Korea Times File
By Kim Tong-hyung
Korean gadget lovers wanting an iPhone for Christmas had better forget it. The planet's most sought-after handset of the moment won't be making it to the world's mobile-phone capital by the end of the year.
KTF, the only wireless carrier in the country that had aggressively courted Apple, can't afford to make any promises when they clearly have more urgent things to think about.
The company's former chief executive Cho Young-ju, who had been the biggest supporter of an iPhone release, is now in the slammer for taking bribes from equipment makers, a scandal that is now splashing over to its parent company, KT.
And the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), the country's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator, still can't decide on whether to lift the software requirements that had prevented foreign handset makers from releasing their high-end products here.
Add that to the recent plunge of local currency, which makes foreign handsets more expensive for local carriers, and it's uncertain whether the iPhone will reach Korean customers before the buzz dies out. Considering it will take about two to three months to complete the network interoperability tests, the local debut of the iPhone will have to wait to the first quarter of next year even if a contract is signed now.
``There is no progress to report about the iPhone,'' said a KTF spokesman.
A KCC official admitted it would be difficult to make a conclusion on the fate of the local software requirements anytime soon.
``There is a lot of conflict of interest surrounding WIPI and it is safe to say that it would be impossible to make a decision by the year's end,'' said an official from KCC's telecommunications policy bureau.
Since 2005, the government had mandated ``WIPI,'' or ``wireless Internet platform for interoperability,'' for all handsets supporting mobile data services. Foreign makers had been reluctant to produce WIPI handsets only for the Korean market, which numbers about 20 million sets per year.
KTF, which is currently engaged in a neck-and-neck battle with industry leaders SK Telecom over the third-generation (3G) telephony market, and wireless content providers have been calling for the government to lift the WIPI requirements.
However, electronics makers Samsung and LG, who aren't too excited about the idea of the iPhone eating into some of their combined 90 percent market share at home, would prefer having WIPI stay.
LG Telecom, the smallest carrier and also a WIPI backer, being one of the few global carriers to rely on CDMA EV-DO Revision (A) to provide mobile data services, puts the iPhone out of consideration anyway.
SK Telecom, which controls more than 50 percent of the country's mobile-phone customers, can afford to sit on the fence. The company admits that it has been talking with Apple over the release of the4 iPhone, but doesn't feel the need to over-commit.
``You can't say that Apple is greatly interested in the Korean market,'' said an SK Telecom spokesman.
``There are a lot of issues to be settled, such as whether Apple would be willing to make the adjustments to enable our mobile data features on the iPhone,'' he said.
The global buzz surrounding the iPhone is deafening, but it remains to be seen whether Apple's latest iconic product will be a hot seller here.
One of the decisive factors is the weakening local currency, which plumbed new depths last week before regaining some value in recent days.
The 16-gigabyte iPhone handset is currently selling for around $800 in Hong Kong, which means the Korean price could easily reach around one million won should the won settle above 1,300 won to the dollar.
The fall of local currency is causing disruptions to the plans of wireless carriers to release handsets made by foreign makers. SK Telecom released a smart phone made by Taiwanese marker HTC earlier this year and is currently talking to companies Nokia and Sony Ericsson over the domestic release of their handsets.
However, with the falling local currency making foreign phones more expensive, SK Telecom and other local carriers are experiencing difficulties in closing the deals, being forced to renew their demands that the handset makers lower their prices.