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South Korean telcos make a play for another pay-TV asset

South Korean operators might be known as the world's 5G pioneers, but they can't resist the thrill of a chase for a pay-TV outfit.

This time the target is Hyundai HCN Co., the fifth-largest cable player, worth an estimated 400 billion won (US$324 million), Yonhap news agency reports.

All three telcos – SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus – are making a play for HCN, a unit of Hyundai Department Store. It has just under 4% of the market and last year posted a 40.8 billion won ($33 million) profit on sales of 292.9 billion won.

Since the expiration of a law which limited pay-TV players to one-third of the market, South Korean operators have been rolling up pay-TV assets to combine them with their own IPTV businesses.

Last year LG Uplus acquired the largest cable TV firm, CJ Hello, while SK Telecom's SK Broadband has just completed a merger with the number two provider, T-broad.

The market share limit isn't completely off the table, however. Some lawmakers continue to demand it be reintroduced, leading KT to abandon its acquisition of another small cable TV operator, DLive, last year.

Today KT leads the combined IPTV and cable TV market with a 31.5% share. LG Uplus has 24.9% and SK Broadband has 24.2% following its T-broad merger. Several smaller pay-TV services, including DLive and HCN, have about a 20% share between them.

The pay-TV business is an obvious attraction for any telco, especially as they roll out video-hungry 5G networks.

Today, even for mobile-centric Korean operators, fixed-line services are a key segment. Prior to its T-broad merger, SK Telecom's broadband, voice and IPTV services accounted for 17% of total revenue.

But the unusual enthusiasm for pay-TV assets is probably a result of the highly concentrated telecom market – just three providers in a country of 52 million.

The intense competition means none can afford to stay on the sidelines when a pay-TV business comes onto the market. KT is making a tilt even though a successful acquisition would put it well over the one-third limit and into the hands of legislators and the Fair Trade Commission.

Additionally, the pay-TV businesses themselves are relatively affordable – not just because of the bigger scale of the telcos, but because the market has declined in recent years.

For example, DLive was acquired by private equity firm MBK Partners for $1.8 billion 12 years ago. Last year MBK was reportedly willing to let go of it for as little as $850 million.

South Korea's thirst for pay-TV also reminds that, even in the brave new world of 5G, there are other paths for telco growth.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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