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SK Telecom delays 3G phone service

The South Korean company joins the growing list of telephone service providers to delay the introduction of next-generation high-speed wireless telephone services.

South Korea's SK Telecom joined the growing list of telephone service providers to delay the introduction of next-generation high-speed wireless telephone services.

In a conference call with investors Wednesday, SK Telecom Chief Executive Pyo Moon Soo said the service was supposed to be offered to some 10 million SK Telecom customers by May 2002. That target date is now May 2003.

The Korean government had hoped that carriers would showcase the service in time for the 2002 World Cup, which will be held in both South and North Korea.

But Soo said that will be impossible, in part because of delays by the manufacturers building the handsets needed to receive the videos, music downloads and other features the new network is expected to offer.

Soo said the delay was "inevitable."

The announcement is not a surprise, but certainly adds to the growing doubt about when, and if, the much-vaunted third generation of telephone networks will actually be launched.

The networks are expected to offer customers an always-on voice and Internet connection capable of receiving and downloading things like videos or music at broadband speeds. Carriers are banking heavily on these new services, some having spent billions of dollars just to license the needed radio frequencies.

The networks themselves cost billions more. SK Telecom, for instance, has already spent about $1 billion on the gear needed to build a high-speed network. The company estimates it will need to spend another $3 billion to build a 3G network capable of serving customers through the country.

SK Telecom is the latest in what is a growing number of telephone service providers that have decided to push back the introduction of high-speed, always-on telephone networks associated with the third generation, or 3G, telephone networks.

Other companies to announce delays include Japan's NTT DoCoMo, which was expected to launch its 3G network in May.

The company pushed the starting date to October but began testing the service to a group of 1,200 hand-picked customers. On Wednesday, NTT said it was still on track to launch the service by Oct. 1.

In March, Japan Telecom announced that it too was delaying the launch of its own 3G service until sometime between July and October of next year.

Other companies that have announced delays include Telecom Italia, which said it now plans a 2004 launch, about two years later than expected.

The only continent that doesn't seem to have been bitten by delays is North America, where Sprint PCS is still holding firm on ambitions to release a next-generation network by year's end.