South Korea’s three mobile operators reported widely mixed results for Q3, with market leader SK Telecom’s profit jumping sharply, due to a large equity gain from its holdings in SK Hynix.
Third ranked LG Uplus also saw net earnings rise, and the operator and SKT both posted increases in mobile sales. KT suffered a decline in profit as well as mobile service revenue.
Despite the country’s already high 4G penetration rate, the three added nearly 4.5 million LTE subscribers since Q3 2016. SKT led with net adds of more than 2 million, with 4G penetration on the operator’s network increasing to 74.8 per cent from 69.8 per cent a year ago.
KT added 1.3 million 4G subscribers, taking LTE penetration to 76.7 per cent from 74.5 per cent in Q3 2016, and LG Uplus signed up 1.15 million, ending September with 91 per cent of its customers on 4G plans (up from 86.6 per cent a year ago).
Total mobile subscribers also continued to increase from a year ago, with nearly 2.5 million additions. KT was on top with a gain of 1.1 million subs, followed by SKT (705,000) and LG Uplus (670,000).
ARPU for the three was remarkably similar: SKT at KRW35,488 ($31.07), KT at 34,608 and LG Uplus at 35,316. SKT’s ARPU was stable year-on-year, while KT and LG Uplus’ dipped 2.2 per cent and 1.5 per cent respectively.
LG Uplus’ handset revenue jumped 43 per cent year-on-year in the quarter to KRW682 billion, and KT’s merchandising revenue rose 59 per cent to KRW779 billion, which the company credited to a low base in Q3 2016 due to Galaxy Note 7 reimbursement issues. SKT’s Q3 report didn’t break out equipment sales.
KT was the only company to attribute weakness in mobile revenue to the government’s attemp to reduce telecom expenses by introducing in August regulations requiring operators to increase the level of discount offered to subscribers signing up to one- and two-year contracts. The move came shortly before a controversial handset subsidy limit was discontinued at end-September after being in effect for three years.
The decision to end a handset cap of KRW330,000 ($295) led to concerns the operators could now offer consumers excessive subsidies in a bid to take market share from each other. Korea Communications Commission chief Lee Hyo-seong met with CEOs of the operators in September and encouraged them to play fair and refrain from engaging in cut-throat competition.