Why South Korea out-networks U.S.

Why South Korea out-networks U.S.

Summary: South Korea is an interesting country.  The nation has gone from a per capita GDP of $87 in the 1950s to $17,580 at purchasing power parity in 2003.

TOPICS: Samsung

South Korea is an interesting country.  The nation has gone from a per capita GDP of $87 in the 1950s to $17,580 at purchasing power parity in 2003. That's incredible, and it's a process being repeated in the largest concentrations of humanity in the world, China and India.  It's a revolution of historic proportions that will be the central issue in international politics for the next 100 years.

What's the IT angle?  Well, South Korea's networking infrastructure makes America's look positively minor league.  Three out of every four South Koreans have a mobile phone, and that's a number that includes children and the elderly, so for all intents and purposes, <i>everyone</i> has a mobile phone. Out of a population of 48 million, 31 million have access to the Web, most via high-speed connections.

I remember when Samsung was a vendor of low-end hardware that competed in discount stores.  Today, most of the phones available for Verizon Wireless at the local Best Buy carry a South Korean brand name, such as Samsung and LG.  At the ITU conference in Geneva last year, I noticed that most of the high-end broadband networking hardware was made by South Korean companies. That makes sense, as having the most wired and techology-enthusiastic population in the world (next to Japan) is bound to be a great test bed for new products. Lots of American companies seemed to have noticed that, which was why many also carried logos from companies like Microsoft.

Having a local population that is enthusiastic about the products you make is helpful.  I often wondered why Germany had such a large number of automobile vendors for a "small" country (of 82 million), but then my German friend related to me that Germans love cars.  Japanese electronics companies lead the world because the Japanese love electronics, and it looks like that same cultural habit exists in South Korea.

Other advantages exist, such as South Koreas high population densities. South Korea has 474 people per square kilometer versus 30 per square kilometer in the U.S., which means it costs less to wire up every South Korean than it does every American.  Still, approximately 80 percent of the population lives in "urban areas" in both countries, so I'm skeptical as to whether that's the primary reason for South Korea's networking success.

What has South Korea done right, and what can Americans learn from their example?  Share your theories in TalkBack.

Topic: Samsung

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • In my opinion, the primary driving force is...

    I'm a Korean college student in EE department. For a just few years, Seoul has become seriously wired! A guy without a cellular phone is treated as such an outlandish and primitive man whom I have not ever met yet. Furthermore, VDSL and Nespot ( KT's Wireless Internet Services ) is available literally everywhere.

    The primary driving force that pushes Korean people to install highspeed broadband volutarily is simple: its unique culture. Korean unique culture emphasizes the intimacy with their friends a lot. The success of Cyworld( www.cyworld.com) is for this reason. Cyworld actually became the front page of its more than ten million users. Korean human relationship is very intimate.
    • Interesting

      I'm sure there are a number of reasons driving Korea's embrace of broadband. I think one of them has to do with a willingness to leave their large companies alone (America chose to break up AT&T, KT wasn't). Not being Korean, though, I never thought about social intimacy aspects of Korean culture.

      I really need to visit South Korea sometime soon.
      John Carroll
  • What's different?

    Hmmm how about not having any cometitors filing law suits over who gets to us a piece of copper wire? How about a population density 100 times that of the US? How about the fact only half of all US homes see any need to even have a computer much less connect to the web?

    The bottom line, American's simply don't have the lust for connectivity (or gadget use) that you see in other parts of the world. Ever see a tourist from Japan without a camers (or 2 or 3)? Nope, they are gadget freaks plain and simple, American's on the whole are not.
    • density

      Primarily a product of state monopoly, population density - and culture. In South Korea the vast majority of the 80+% of the population that lives in the nation's cities (close to 50% of the country lives in and around the capital Seoul)live in high density apartment blocks. These concrete blocks are put in clusters, sometimes as many 15-20 towers belonging to one complex. This makes wiring the country far cheaper and more efficient. As well, the national gov't subsidized the development of the broadband backbone in the late 1990s a move which meant that private firms did not have to assume all the expense and risk of developing the infrastructure. Thirdly, South Korea is (arguably) the most ethnically homogenous nation in the world and Koreans love to 'be in touch'. For example, within the apt. blocks, each household apt has a speaker installed in the wall or ceiling so the building guard can announce when someone has arrived in the parking lot selling something or a child is lost, etc. It's a system that would seem very intrusive to a non-Korean, a speaker in side your home blaring out a public service announcement at 8:00am on Sunday, but Koreans don't view personal space in the same, and prize connectivity far more than other cultures where 'getting away and unplugging' is more popular.
    • Europe, Asia and Canada are all ahead of America on connectivity.

      Eastern European countries have WiFi GRIDs set up, many EU cities are installing WiFi grids that allow for connectivity. Cities in South Korea (there was an article not too long back on ZDNet about this) are setting up WiMAX for connectivity in the high density dwellings. Canada had had a fiber backbone faster than the US for years! Businesses want connectivity to market and sell services globally, connect remote offices and allow people to do business while on the road (Wi-Fi is on the French railways already). WiBRO (South korea) allows for peole to have more powerful and smaller devices that can connect wirelessly for up to 30 to 50 km between routers.

      To summerize, Americans are becoming less competitive as they fall behind the curve.
      • not necessarily less competitive

        Less connected does not equal less cpmoetitive. It's all in the way you use it--this CNN article (http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/04/22/text.iq/index.html)
        says that too much connectivity decreases productivity, and I agree. I find that I work better with fewer interruptions.

        Too much information is just as bad as too little.
      • I guess you missed reading about..

        The law suits daily over who gets to use a wire (fiber) huh?
      • Europe

        Europe isn't beating any records in terms of broadband. Fewer Europeans have computers in the home than Americans, and though Switzerland had good broadband service, Ireland didn't, so claiming that all of Europe schools American in broadband is simply wrong.

        Your eastern europe example is interesting, though, as one of the reasons eastern europe is ramping up so fast is they are starting from scratch. Richer countries have a larger installed wired base, and thus are more likely to be held back by older technology. That certainly applies in America, but less so in former Warsaw block nations with crumbling old infrastructure. All that new EU money is helping to accelerate things.

        I find WiFi to be far more universally available in America than in France, Switzerland or Ireland. WiFi is EVERYWHERE here (well, at least in LA, but even super common in Santa Fe), less so where I was in Europe.

        America IS risking its future competitiveness, though, if they can't figure out ways to bring the local market up to speed on new technology faster. Korea has a huge advantage due to its wired base, as they will be the place where new ideas are generated.
        John Carroll
        • 2005 ITU Comparitive Statistics on Broadband

          If you're interested in ITU's latest statistics on global broadband penetration by economies, see

          Robert Shaw
          ITU Strategy and Policy Unit
          • Thanks

            That's an incredibly useful link. Explains why my broadband experience in Switzerland was so good.
            John Carroll
    • Re: What's different

      [i]Hmmm how about not having any cometitors filing law suits over who gets to us a piece of copper wire?[/i]

      That's item 1 among the reasons why I think South Korea has lapped us in broadband / telecommunications. They aren't scared of big companies, the side effect of which is they don't tied those companies down in red tape when they "free" them to the whims of the market. The result is those big companies use the billions at their disposal to build new markets, then lose LARGE chunks of them to competitors, as happened with KT (formerly Korea Telecom).

      Markets naturally whittle down telco monopolies, making unnecessary the central planning nightmare that STILL saddles the American telecommunications industry to this day.

      [i] How about a population density 100 times that of the US?[/i]

      As noted in the post, though, urbanization is approximately the same in both countries (around 80%, with America the lower of the two). They ARE denser, to be sure, but I'm not sure that's the primary reason. America COULD have had comparable (if not faster) levels of broadband growth, wiring up the big urban centers faster than the South Koreans with fewer resources managed, but we chose to apply central planning to our telecommunications industry.

      [i]How about the fact only half of all US homes see any need to even have a computer much less connect to the web?[/i]

      Japan and Korea are more gadget crazy, which is odd. Maybe we Americans are a more utilitarian bunch.
      John Carroll
  • One more thing that helped

    Ok... the density and maybe the size of the country and other stuff have been a thing that help the internet speed in korea. However, there is one thing more to add which is game. However, not those package games that are for single players but the ones that have multiplayer. Go to a city in korea and look around you will find several PC cafe (and i mean it 5~20 if your lucky you might find 50 in half of a square mile). The PC cafe's aren't really a cafe or what sort of thing it might be used for but games. In a PC cafe in korea they play games. So the game is an important reason for the fast speed. Internet games! Koreans from elementary school students, junior high(many), high school students(most), and even adults(some) who have jobs play online games all the time.
    Oh if I add a bit more... check out who are the crazy blizzard game players. For example, Starcraft and WarcraftIII:Frozen Throne... you will see koreans in the top rank. Sometimes the top 5 might be all koreans.
    • add-on

      Ah... forgot something korean online games needs fast speed. Linage II is a online game that needs super high speed... and many people play it... then guess what you need HIGH SPEED internet...