Written in a Hotel in Gwangju, South Korea and despatched to silicon.com via a free wired LAN connection
During the past week I have been working in Seoul and Gwangju, South Korea. I have also travelled down country, by coach, and sampled high-speed Korea first hand in hotels, public places and a convention centre.
This is a country of wonderful scenery, mountains and concentrated high-rise conurbations, good quality infrastructure, a national vision and a plan for the IT era. Everyone I talked to seemed to have at least 10Mbps at home but only one mobile phone. Laptops and mobiles were in evidence everywhere and wi-fi access seemed to be available in almost every location I looked. Curiously, the use of mobile phones seemed less prolific in public than in the EU and US.
As to the speed of internet connection: according to my tests, it was mostly far faster than the UK at around 10Mbps as the base service, with a few locations that were faster still. In only a couple of locations did I experience EU connection speeds, and that was because a large number of conference delegates/people were sharing a single 10Mbps wi-fi feed.
Most public buildings and the airports I passed through had at least one free wi-fi service, and while one hotel charged for wired access from my room, it did provide free wi-fi in the lobby. At another extreme was a hotel that provided free wired LAN to the room and wi-fi access in the lobby. For the most part I could find free and pay wi-fi everywhere and often - they often coexisted in the same locations!
The vast majority of the infrastructure providing internet connectivity employs copper in the local loop, and talking with those responsible for the rollout of 100Mbps 'fibre to the home', I gained the impression that the coverage was not yet as comprehensive as the media would have us believe. However, in true Korean fashion, experiments at 1Gbps are underway already and rollout plans for that super high-speed service are being formulated.
From an engineering standpoint it is hard to make a fully balanced assessment but I suspect the biggest advantage here is the lack of circuit contention. You actually get what it says on the tin! If you buy 10Mbps you get all of it, and not a 15-, 20- or 30-fold watering down as experienced in the UK and elsewhere.
So what was using the high-speed connection like? Video streaming was a dream! Email and file downloading was almost instantaneous. But there were times when it felt as slow as the EU too. I'm not at all sure why but I suspect heavily loaded servers at some distant point to be the culprits. Anyway I'd say the average in Korea was pretty good, well ahead of the EU and in line with the best of the best in the US.
Looking to the future, Korea has several key advantages. First, a national programme to set 100Mbps as the minimum internet connectivity standard; second, a large number of tightly packed (high rise) conurbations; and third, a full service provision with no circuit contention. The second makes access rollout expensive but in this hotel, which is in a forest halfway up a mountain, it is clear that they also intend on reaching everyone. The third gives the illusion of even greater speed for those visiting who normally experience the slowdown inflicted by access-sharing in their host countries.
So far the broadband programme has seen people's habits change with radio and TV supplied by broadband, and a rise in online business activities. It is hard to even guess what increasing the connection speed a further 100-fold will do but for sure it won't be detrimental for the economy.
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.