KTF led by CEO Cho Young-joo, left, and Steve Jobs’Apple work together to debut iPhone in Korea next year. / Korea Times
By Kim Tong-hyung
Apple's iPhone is a gizmo just about everybody wants to get their hands on. However, in Korea, the world's mobile-phone capital, the iconic handsets are likely to be crossed off from Christmas gift lists.
KTF, the country's second-largest wireless carrier, has been negotiating with Apple over adding the iPhone 3G, the latest version of the immensely popular smart phone, to its handset lineup, and had hoped for a domestic release around the high-demand winter season.
However, with state regulators slow to lift the software requirements that prevented foreign handset makers from gaining ground here, Koreans aren't likely to get a taste of the iPhone craze at least until next year.
``For now, there is no agreement of any kind between KTF and Apple over the release of iPhones,'' said a KTF official, denying rumors that a deal had been reached.
``Even after a deal is inked, the network interoperability tests will take about two or three months and there is also the process of enabling KTF's existing mobile-phone applications to work on iPhones. It would be virtually impossible to release the handsets earlier than early next year,'' he said.
Foreign electronics makers have been effectively blocked out of the Korean mobile-phone market. The barrier has been ``WIPI,'' or ``Wireless Internet Platform for Interoperability,'' a software standard the government mandated in 2005 for all handsets designed to deliver mobile data services.
Most foreign companies were reluctant to produced WIPI handsets just for the Korean handset market that is only worth about 20 million units per year.
As a result, top Korean makers like Samsung and LG combine for nearly 90 percent of the domestic market, with Motorola and Casio managing a modest following for their WIPI-enabled handsets.
However, the Korean Communications Commission (KCC), the country's broadcasting and telecommunications regulator, have been facing increasing pressure to scrap the WIPI requirement and recently said it will reconsider the policy.
Consumers have been complaining that the regulations have restricted their choices, while wireless carriers KTF and SK Telecom, the No.1 mobile-phone operators, would prefer widening their handsets lineup to differentiate offerings.
The KCC has already made exceptions, saying that foreign handsets released for business users would be exempt from the WIPI requirements.
This allowed Taiwanese maker HTC to release their ``Touch Dual'' handset through SK Telecom in July. SK Telecom is also planning to release a Nokia handset next month.
However, it would certainly be a joke to identify iPhone, right now the hippest gadget on Earth, as a smart phone for tie-wearing corporate customers.
``We can't make exceptions for foreign handset makers forever,'' said a KCC official. However, he also said that the WIPI issue is not one of the scheduled subjects to be discussed in the KCC's executive meetings this month.
``The scrapping of the WIPI requirements is too big of a decision to make a quick judgment. It will definitely take more than one meeting,'' he said.
KTF, which is competing toe-to-toe against SK Telecom for third-generation (3G) customers, hopes that iPhone could serve as the franchise player that gives them an edge in the handset match up.
However, LG Telecom, the smallest of all carriers, wants the WIPI requirements to stay. Unlike the WCDMA technology used for the 3G services of SK Telecom and KTF, LG Telecom is one of the few global carriers that rely on EV-DO Revision (A), an evolved version of second-generation (2G) CDMA technology, to handle mobile data services, which puts them out of the consideration for foreign handset makers.