Five reasons South Korea has the fastest internet

The US always lags behind the South Korea when it comes to internet speeds—why is this?

Last summer USA Today ran a headline: “Superfast internet? South Korea wins, US lags far behind” … and the story seems to be the same every time a state of the internet report is released (or a western city gets pilloried for having especially slow broadband). But still, why is South Korea’s internet consistently faster than everywhere? And is it really all about the technology?

1. Government planning

A few years back, IDG Connect interviewed Linda Butcher, Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute, and she consistently described the internet’s evolution as: “top-down”. Culturally, Koreans trust their government and each other a little more than most western citizens do—though they do turn out in droves to protest if they feel betrayed—so government-led initiatives are an important part of getting things done in Korea.

In 1995, South Korea had only one internet user for every hundred citizens. In that year, though, their government initiated the Korean Information Infrastructure project—a 10-year program that started with laying internet infrastructure between government buildings and rolled out country-wide broadband by 1998. By the year 2000, South Korea had connected nearly 20 million of its 45 million citizens—more than Japan (pop. in 2000: 127 million) or France (62 million), and almost as many as China (1.25 billion).

Today, thanks in large part to the government’s infrastructure and education initiatives the overwhelming majority of South Korea’s population has internet access. The government’s timely and well-executed internet policies gave it a huge head start, and they are continuing to pay off.

2. Healthy competition

Even as they invested in setting up a public-sector network, the Korean government took decisive action in the private sector, adopting a consistent policy of deregulation that they maintain today. They ensured that barriers to entry were low for new Internet Service Providers (ISPs), fostering an atmosphere of competition. With these liberal standards in place, private-sector operators were able to expand the internet from a skeleton framework into a country-wide system, and sped up the internet through relentless competition.

For example, as Sobee Shinohara relates, in 2005, the large telecommunication companies came under pressure as smaller competitors began to pick up large pieces of the DSL (then the primary connection method in Korea) market. In response, Korea Telecom began to break ground on fibre optic networks throughout Korea, preserving their business and upgrading the country’s internet capabilities. It is precisely this kind of competition that creates an innovative technological environment.

3. Urban population density

South Korea is famed for its skyscrapers and city lights, and the stereotype is true: 83% of its 53-million-person population currently resides in urban areas. While a similar ratio holds for the United States, consider that Korea essentially puts 1/7 of the US population into an area equivalent to the space between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Population density isn’t much fun if you’re claustrophobic, but it makes fast internet a lot easier to get. With the high proportion of Koreans living in urban-area apartments, spreading connections between them is more like stitching a quilt than building a road. The proximity dramatically reduces the cost of infrastructure and “simplifies network development” as the International Telecommunication Union puts it. Fibre optic connections are expensive to build and DSL has steep performance loss over distances—but in South Korea physical gaps are barely an issue.

4. Private industry

While Linda Butcher pointed out that the Korean government was vital to encouraging adoption of the internet in South Korea, she added that it was private companies that did a lot of the structural work. This is an excellent example of the kind of symbiotic relationship that businesses and the government have in South Korea. “In a country like Korea,” Butcher explained, “when you get a green light from your government you go ahead full-force and try to be successful in that field.”

Today, the South Korean private sector is conducting some of the most cutting-edge technological R&D in the world. Companies like Samsung are internationally known for their products. The simultaneously proactive yet hands-off stance taken by the government towards its country’s industry encourages innovation and competition, and as a result of the uniquely Korean culture of cooperation between private and public sectors, the country’s technology-driven economy provides a host of benefits to its citizens.

5. Korean culture

Though prior to the 20th century Korea was known as “The Hermit Kingdom,” they have made a dramatic reversal, embracing the political, economic, and cultural characteristics of globalization. And as Butcher explained, “When [Koreans] decide on something, they are 100% in.” Korean culture emphasizes the importance of work ethic and perseverance; once they set their sights on technology there was no going back.

A traditionally Confucian society, Koreans still emphasise achievement and education—historically a means of hierarchical advancement. The Korean government recognised this ethic in their citizens and made efforts to promote the internet as a tool for education and advancement—an image that captured the Korean imagination and drove widespread adoption early on.

This story, "Five reasons South Korea has the fastest internet" was originally published by IDG Connect.


Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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