Korea's largest carrier to roll out LTE Advanced network next year

SK Telecom said it has successfully tested core LTE Advanced technologies, as it prepares to upgrade its LTE service

South Korea's largest mobile carrier, SK Telecom, said Thursday that it has successfully tested a technology that can provide up to 1Gbps wireless downloads and will launch services by next year.

SKT said it successfully tested LTE (Long Term Evolution) Advanced, the successor to LTE, the popular standard for high-speed data networks. The testing was done together with Qualcomm and Nokia Siemens Networks.

SKT, the world's second-largest LTE service provider after U.S. operator Verizon Wireless, is quickly rolling out new technology to deal with Korea's packed geography, as well as a growing local demand for bandwidth-heavy multimedia content. Last week, the operator launched the world's first multicarrier service for LTE, which automatically switches between multiple spectrums to find the least congested one, easing network glut.

LTE Advanced also has technologies meant to secure strong connections even in busy areas, such as inter-cell interference coordination or eICIC, which manages interference between larger base stations and smaller cell towers.

The operator now has 3.4 million users, who use an average of 1.7GB per month, according to spokeswoman Irene Kim. SKT expects subscribers to more than double to 7 million this year.

South Korea and the U.S. are a year or more ahead of other regions such as Europe in rolling out such services, said Scott Bicheno, a senior analyst with Strategy Analytics in the U.K.

"Western European governments have been slow to free up LTE spectrum, while operators have been slow to spot the benefits of faster 4G networks," he said. "South Korean operators like SKT will be right at the forefront of that emerging growth wave."

Korea's major three telcos, SKT, KT and LG U+, have all been rushing to roll out LTE Advanced networks since launching their LTE services last year.

So far only two devices, Pantech's Vega Racer 2 and Samsung's Galaxy S III, are compatible with the service, and users have to manually upgrade to use it. But Korean manufacturers like Samsung are quick to roll out new handsets for the home market, and more smartphones, with the multicarrier technology built-in, are due out this year.

"There should be plenty of choices for LTE-MC phones over the next year or two because device makers want to stay on friendly terms with South Korean operators and help them manage better the increasing traffic loads on their networks," Bicheno said.

SKT now offers the service in crowded parts of Seoul, and will expand to six other cities this year and 23 more by early next year.

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Yewon Kang

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