Wireless broadband in South Korea

In mid  April 2007 a new wireless form of broadband known as WiBro will blanket South Korea. WiBro allows people to get multimedia content like movies wirelessly while travelling at 120kph, at download speeds most Australians could only dream of.

Korean transport engineers have trialled a train that travels at up to 300 kph. Jean Min, a senior executive with OhmyNews in Seoul, said trains and buses would be the best places to access WiBro because this form of wireless Internet was nomadic and everywhere. “You could sit in your seat and access the Net for three hours as you travel around the country. It will also be available in express buses.”

South Korea has been testing WiBro since the middle of last year. WiBro has upload speeds of at least 1 megabit a second. Download is even faster. “They have tested it for several months and are confident they can do it,” Min said.

South Korea has the world’s second-lowest broadband costs. Most people pay about $12 a month for speeds of at least 1 mbs. In many parts of Seoul, the capital, wireless broadband is free.

Meanwhile my home “broadband” service from Telstra costs five times that amount for download speeds about an eighth of what South Koreans get. Often my speeds are as low as 30 kps, about the same speed as dial-up at the turn of the century.

In terms of broadband, Australia runs the risk of being left behind, complacently “releaxed and comfortable” while our Asian neighbours race ahead.

South Korea’s broadband applies across the country, not just in the major cities. About 50.6 million people live in an area of 99,313 square kilometers, so the country is small enough to cover easily.

South Korea has achieved remarkable growth since the 1960s. The economy was impoverished and rural when the Japanese occupation ended in 1945. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed during the Korean War from 1950-53. By 1960 South Korea’s per capita GDP lagged behind countries like Zambia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

But since then, sustained high economic growth has transformed the country into a highly industrial and internationally competitive economy. Measured by GDP, South Korea was in the top 10 economies in the world in 2006. Earlier this year the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted Japan and South Korea would have identical GDP per head by 2050.

Suk Hoick, president of Korea’s Information Society Development Institute, said information and communication technologies contributed 16.1 per cent of GDP last year. By early 2007, 85 per cent of households had broadband, the highest number of broadband connections per capita in the world. The country was an early adopter of “triple play” models that provide cable television, broadband Internet and voice telephony as a package from a single provider.

The South Korean government is committed to transitioning the country to digital terrestrial, digital cable and digital satellite TV by 2010. Indeed, the government has promised a robot to every household by 2010. The robot would advise about expired food in the fridge, monitor electricity consumption and vacuum the floor.

South Korea is considered a world leader in third generation (3G) mobile technology. It has the world’s highest percentage of mobile users with 3G phones. WCDMA, the second 3G standard to enter the Korean market after CMDA2000, became commercially available in December 2003.

Because of the high penetration of mobile telephones and digital technology, South Korea has become a hothouse for infrastructure developments. It sits at the “bleeding edge” of the digital revolution, acting as a trailblazer for high-speed and wireless Internet services. The country has also pioneered the distribution of television via mobile devices. Online gaming is a national passion.

More than 95 per cent of people aged 6 to 29 regularly go online, compared with 86.4 per cent of people in their thirties, 58.3 per cent of people in their forties and 27.6 per cent of those in their fifties.

Many of the country’s newspapers are looking at providing multimedia through Internet protocol television (IPTV) via the web.

Jean Min said OhmyNews used live web-casting extensively. “We use wireless modems that allow us to video-cast from anywhere. That kind of content is very popular with our audiences. Whenever there is a big event we send a camera. When reporters walk around the streets of Seoul they can access high-speed Internet from anywhere. Uploading and downloading web video is easy for us. Live webcam TV is one of the killer applications for getting people glued to our screen.”

Dr Eugene Pak, vice-president in charge of the chief technology office at Samsung Electronics, has the enviable job of focusing on the future.  He is fond of quoting his CEO, Lee Byung-Woo: “The future is not to be predicted; it is to be created.”

Samsung’s revenues last year were $US 55.3 billion, with profits of $US 7.5 billion. It invested $US 6.01billion last year in research and development, about 9 per cent of revenue.

The company employs more than 36,000 people in its 16 R&D centres around world, including 3,100 PhDs. To put the number of doctorates in perspective, that is more than the number at Korea University, and more than the total number of Victorian academics with doctorates.

The main research unit is the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, SAIT. Dr Pak said one of the latest developments to come out of SAIT was a bio-chip used to monitor people’s health. An individual puts a drop of their blood on this chip, which gives an analysis of their overall health.

Samsung has been experimenting with building smart apartment blocks that allow residents to turn on their stove via their mobile phone as they journey home. Technology known as Amoled could produce a new form of flexible display technology that is able to be rolled like paper.

Samsung has experimented with the use of radio frequency identification (rfid) tags placed on food in the fridge, which advises residents when food is past its use-by date. Tages have also been put in taxis. The tag reads an individual’s mobile phone number when they enter the taxi, recording the location. “Think of the applications for ensuring the safety of individuals at night,” Dr Pak said.

The IT megatrends for the second half of this decade would include digital convergence leading to network convergence (think a blending of telecoms with broadcasting and wireless devices), leading to high levels of personalisation. “We will see the emergence of all-in-one phone handsets,” Dr Pak said.

Samsung staff refer often to Hwang’s law, named after a vice-president for research and echoing the famous Moore’s law that says that memory capacity doubles every 18 to 24 months. “Hwang’s law at Samsung means we double the capacity of flash memory each year,” Dr Pak said.

But all is not perfect in this technology wonder-world. South Korea’s birth rates are low by world standards. The fertility rate in 2005 was 1.08 child per woman compared with 4.53 a generation earlier.

Dr Woo Cheonsik, senior counsellor to South Korea’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs, said slow population growth was the country’s major concern. “A dramatic fall in fertility rates and longer life expectancies will soon make South Korea one of the most aged societies in the world,” he said. As with Australia’s ageing population, this has major long-term consequences for the economy.

* Published in The Age of April 2007

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