Broadband lessons from South Korea

For more than a decade people in the telecoms market – and particularly those involved in broadband – have been looking at countries such as South Korea and Japan where, based on strong government leadership, very high-speed broadband networks have been rolled out since the late 1990s.

As a result advocates all round the world are using these countries as showcases for broadband developments, and nearly every country involved in broadband has sent trade and fact-finding missions to look and learn.

However those who do not necessarily believe in the need for superfast broadband networks – for example the political opposition in Australia – are using these countries as examples to show that the uptake of high-speed broadband services in these countries remains relatively low.

As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

South Korea developed its broadband policies in the late 1990s for the sole purpose of stimulating its manufacturing export opportunities. It did not start the rollout of its networks based on, for example, the social and economic benefits; and it did very little to stimulate the demand side. Nevertheless the majority of broadband users in Korea are now on services of 25MB/s. They are already doing this at a time when the national average of other countries is still more like 5Mb/s. So, if anything, it shows that already, at this stage and without any major stimulation on the demand side, they are using 5 times faster and better broadband than the rest of the developed economies.

At the same time it also shows that to reap the social and economic benefits of high-speed broadband it is necessary to develop the demand side at the same time. South Korea recognised this and in 2010 established a Presidential Committee to look at applications such as education, healthcare, smart grids, etc. Because it already had the infrastructure in place it could act swiftly, and as a result its first new policy outcome was a major education initiative as listed below.

So what lessons can we learn from countries such as South Korea? The early adoption of high-speed broadband has given the country significant economic advantages.

For example:

  • it allowed its manufacturing industry to experiment with the latest technologies, and companies such as Samsung and LG are now world leaders in areas such as smartphones, tablets and smart TVs ;
  • it placed South Korea in the international spotlight and helped lift the profile of the country and its economy – it is now seen as an international leader in this market;
  • it allowed business to develop e-commerce. The result of one of the lessons learned by the South Koreans themselves was – to enable their SME manufacturers of components, accessories and other small articles to participate in the digital economy the country’s international postal tariffs were lowered to make those ‘exports’ cheaper; and
  • last but not least, with their high-speed broadband in place they have decided to abandon printed books in all schools, replacing them with e-books by 2015.

By being at the front of the pack South Korea has enabled its businesses and its people to lead the world, yielding significant benefits to their society and to their economy.

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