KT searches for its 'cash cow' 5G use case at MWC

KT hotel robot
KT's artificial intelligence hotel robot looks a bit like R2-D2. (FierceWireless)

BARCELONA—At Sprint’s press conference at MWC 2019 to announce its initial rollout of 5G, executives said they thought one of the first big use cases for 5G would likely be gaming. Really? Operators are going through all these machinations so that teenagers can have faster, lower-latency gaming? That will be bad news for all the parents who are trying to drag their adolescents away from Fortnite.

Then, at a press tour at the KT booth it became apparent that simply offering faster, lower-latency mobile connectivity for smart phones is not going to have the payback that operators want and need from their 5G investments.

Robotics, coffee and 5G

The tour guide for the Korean operator took reporters around to various exhibits showing 5G use cases.

We saw an artificial intelligence (AI) robot that looked kind of like R2-D2 from Star Wars. It also looked a bit like a mini washing machine on wheels. KT created the robot to deliver room service for hotels. The carrier says Novotel in Korea is already using the robot in one of its premier hotels in Korea. At the press tour, we saw the robot deliver a bottle of water.

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Then we watched a virtual reality gaming demonstration where a player wore VR glasses to “hit” a baseball. And we saw a robotic barista that hands coffee drinks to customers. This will save coffee shop owners from having to hire human baristas. Unfortunately, the robotic barista costs about $100,000. And it doesn’t even make the coffee. That’s left to an expensive cappuccino machine. The robot seems to mainly just hand over the coffee.

The robotic barista does include facial recognition technology. So the robot may know what you’re going to order before you order it…if you’re a regular customer. In fact, facial recognition technology was included in several of the KT exhibits. It was included in a camera hanging over a simulated factory floor. Based on video streams and facial recognition, an application could determine if factory workers were wearing their appropriate hard hats or other safety equipment.

And facial recognition was also used in obvious use cases such as security in a parking garage and even video surveillance from drones.

RELATED: Samsung pre-empts MWC, unveils 2 smartphone firsts: foldable and 5G

Asked why all these use cases required 5G, KT spokespeople explained that they require faster processing that’s best done in the cloud. And LTE doesn’t provide connectivity that’s fast enough and with low enough latency to transport the data back and forth from the cloud.

KT's 5G plans, sans Huawei

Sung Eunmi, VP of 5G services in KT’s marketing group, said the carrier is working to innovate 5G use cases that will bring in new revenue streams for the company. She said investments in 5G in Korea were largely driven by the government because it wants faster mobile speeds and lower prices on LTE. “We don’t have any choice, we have to put our money to tomorrow’s potential,” said Eunmi. She added that carriers will be able to charge more for 5G mobile plans, but not that much more. KT and Korea’s other two carriers, SK Telecom and LG Uplus, all need to find their “cash cow for 5G,” she said.  Business-to-business applications, such as those used in factories, would probably come first.

“KT has a lot of thoughts about making money,” said Eunmi. “People are figuring out the business model. Right now, connectivity only is not enough. We have to figure out the more valuable services for 5G.”

KT will be rolling out its commercial 5G wireless network in March in conjunction with new 5G smartphones from Samsung and LG.

Eunmi said KT is using Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung as its 5G vendors. It is not using Huawei, a situation she described as “delicate.” SK Telecom has also steered clear of Huawei. But just yesterday, LG Uplus and Huawei jointly announced the establishment of a 5G commercial network. The two sides have completed the deployment of more than 10,000 sites.

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