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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

South Korea Pushes Mobile Broadband

It doesn't take a visitor long to notice that South Koreans have some of
the best telecommunications in the world. Cellphones work flawlessly, even
in the depths of Seoul's subway system. Head-phoned teenagers hunch over
virtual battlefields displayed on multimedia PCs in cramped Internet game
rooms known as "baangs," which are themselves tethered to the Net by optical
fiber.

Meanwhile, at more laid-back cafés, open laptops are the norm, as fast Wi-Fi
signals share the air with the fragrant scent of fresh-brewed coffee.

It's hard to imagine South Korea needing even more connectivity. Yet the republic is making a collective bet that it does. Even as leading carriers like SK Telecom, in Seoul, are investing heavily to improve data rates on their cellular networks, which already are state of the art, the government—with the full support of the nation's wireless providers and equipment makers—has pushed a competing technology called "wireless broadband," or WiBro for short.

A mobile version of regular broadband—take a DSL modem, cut its copper umbilical cord, and put it on wheels—WiBro is fundamentally similar to the standard known as WiMax, which is being developed by the IEEE 802.16 working group [see News, "WiMax and Wi-Fi: Separate and Unequal," IEEE Spectrum, March 2004]. But WiBro allows the user to work a spreadsheet or watch a movie while trucking along at near-highway speeds, whereas WiMax users must stay put.

WiBro promises much higher data rates than you can get even from a third-generation (3G) cellular system—an initial rate of 1 to 3 megabits per second, versus the 384 kilobits per second typical in advanced mobile phone networks today. And the WiBro download rate may eventually rise to about 18 Mb/s, fast enough for even high-definition television, as well as voice, video, and old-fashioned e-mail and Web traffic.

Betting that many of its mobile data-services customers will not be content for long with mere 3G speeds, SK Telecom plans to establish WiBro service in South Korea's major cities. Users, as they roam, will be able to toggle between WiBro and 3G, says Joo Sik Lee, vice president of the company's Network R&D Center, in Seoul. Thus, bored bus and subway commuters will be able to tune in to their favorite radio stations, watch on-demand movies, and play games online.

Additionally, a major Internet service provider without a physical network of its own, such as EarthLink or AOL Broadband, could go for WiBro. In January, for example, SK Telecom and EarthLink announced a partnership that could eventually bring WiBro service to EarthLink's 5 million U.S. customers.

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