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29 November 2022

NTT Docomo hooks up with SK Telecom in the metaverse

Since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his metaverse concept and branding in July 2021, mobile operators have been scrambling for position – even those in China, which is pursuing a parallel ‘verse’. There have been marked regional disparities in MNO response, with the greatest enthusiasm and activity coming from the hi-tech areas of Asia-Pacific and far less from Europe.

This reflects distinct market dynamics, with Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan lacking the same exposure to the great American media giants and hyperscalers as the western regions, while also having large and powerful MNOs. As a result, some MNOs have been able to build platforms with the scale to compete in a field requiring high investment in advanced digital capabilities, whatever the merits of metaverse as a concept.

Japan’s NTT Docomo and South Korea’s SK Telecom (SKT) can be regarded as pioneers in the field. SKT took just one month after Meta’s launch to announce a global virtual meeting platform under the metaverse banner in August 2021.

However, as the metaverse scope has expanded into content production as well as extended reality (XR) technology, even these large telcos felt the need for collaboration to accelerate and scale-up their efforts, hence the new cooperation between the two operators.

The two are discussing how to combine production of original content for their respective video distribution platforms across both consumer and enterprise. They are vague on specifics, muttering about 3D models, volumetric videos and virtual cities, but are clear over their ambition to connect their respective platforms over the longer term.

They also plan to cooperate on 5G infrastructure, where they will bring in technologies developed by Docomo’s parent NTT in particular. They have specified 5G Standalone, millimeter wave spectrum, energy-efficient operation and Open/virtualized RAN, as four areas of collaborative focus.

Docomo and SKT have also outlined plans to align concepts and timelines for early deployment of capabilities under the 6G banner, through joint R&D, standardization and joint testing to begin possibly in 2023.

SKT has indicated it will support the Innovative Optical and Wireless Network (IOWN) concept, which was initiated and promoted by NTT. As SKT CEO Ryu Young-sang explained: “The memorandum of understanding has a significant meaning as it is a cooperation between the representative mobile operators of Korea and Japan. By working together with NTT Docomo In the area of future ICT, we will generate tangible results that drive global ICT innovation.”

In Europe and North America, operators have either lacked the scale to compete so far in the metaverse arena, or been intimidated by the major hyperscalers, or both. In the USA, operators such as AT&T and Verizon do have the scale and cross platform capability but are in the home turf of the hyperscalers, so look being corralled into more junior partnership roles. They will partner with the great media streamers such as Netflix, Google, Amazon, Disney and Apple over content, and with technology players over devices and XR platforms.

To some extent the same applies in China, where Baidu, Alibaba and TenCent have adopted the metaverse fervor even if not always the term so as not to appear to be just following an American lead. Baidu made its first major move in December 2021 by opening its internally developed metaverse called XiRanto for visiting and interacting with virtual locations through avatars.

Then Alibaba, China’s closest equivalent to Amazon, was not shy of using the ‘meta’ word when it rolled out various upgrades for the fifth anniversary of its Tmall Luxury Pavilion in September 2022. This included the ‘Meta Pass’ conferring priority digital access to brands’ products, such as Burberry to Bogner, as well as an immersive XR exhibition to signal a metaverse future.

But like the USA China has some powerful telcos, notably China Mobile, the world’s largest MNO. China Mobile has accordingly been ploughing its own metaverse furrow culminating in several recent announcements, especially a comprehensive metaverse roadmap, highlighting the usual rump of technologies such as video ringtones, augmented reality glasses and cloud gaming.

Large operators such as China Mobile aim to compete across multiple metaverse dimensions beyond the underlying ICT platforms comprising connectivity and edge compute. They also want to provide some of the higher-level devices, enhanced analytics and also content.