SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea already claims the world’s fastest Internet connections — the fastest globally by far — but that is hardly good enough for the government here.
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Woohae Cho for the International Herald Tribune
Choi Gwang-gi is overseeing South Korea's plan to connect every home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second by the end of next year.
By the end of 2012, South Korea intends to connect every home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second. That would be a tenfold increase from the already blazing national standard and more than 200 times as fast as the average household setup in the United States.
A pilot gigabit project initiated by the government is under way, with 1,500 households in five South Korean cities wired. Each customer pays about 30,000 won a month, or less than $27.
“South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do,” President Obamasaid in his State of the Union address last month. Last week, Mr. Obama unveiled an $18.7 billion broadband spending program.
While Americans are clip-clopping along, trailing the Latvians and the Romanians in terms of Internet speed, the South Koreans are at a full gallop. Their average Internet connections are far faster than even No. 2 Hong Kong and No. 3 Japan, according to the Internet analyst Akamai Technologies.
Overseeing South Korea’s audacious expansion plan is Choi Gwang-gi, 28, a soft-spoken engineer. He hardly looks the part of a visionary or a revolutionary as he pads around his government-gray office in vinyl slippers.
But Mr. Choi has glimpsed the future — the way the Internet needs to behave for the next decade or so — and he is trying to help Korea get there. During an interview at his busy office in central Seoul, Mr. Choi sketched out — in pencil — a tidy little schematic of the government’s ambitious project.
“A lot of Koreans are early adopters,” Mr. Choi said, “and we thought we needed to be prepared for things like 3-D TV, Internet protocol TV, high-definition multimedia, gaming and videoconferencing, ultra-high-definition TV, cloud computing.”
Never mind that some of these devices and applications are still under development by engineers in Seoul, Tokyo and San Jose, Calif. For Mr. Choi, nothing seems outlandish, unthinkable or improbable anymore. And the government here intends to be ready with plenty of network speed when all the new ideas, games and gizmos come pouring out of the pipeline.
“The gigabit Internet is essential for the future, absolutely essential, and all the technologists will tell you this,” said Don Norman, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, a leading technology consultancy in Fremont, Calif. “We’re all going to be doing cloud computing, for example, and that won’t work if you’re not always connected. Games. Videoconferencing. Video on demand. All this will require huge bandwidth, huge speed.”
The South Korean project is also meant to increase wireless broadband services tenfold.
Even as South Korea aims for greater, faster connectivity, Internet addiction is already a worrisome social issue here. Deprogramming camps have sprung up to help Net-addicted youngsters.
One South Korean couple, arrested last year, became so immersed in a role-playing game at an Internet cafe that their 3-month-old daughter starved to death — even as they fed and nurtured a virtual, online daughter named Anima.
But industry executives are plowing ahead.
“The name of the game is how fast you can get the content,” said Kiyung Nam, a spokesman for the Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung Electronics. “People want to download and enjoy their content on the go. But right now it’s not seamless. It’s not perfect.”
The idea of the gigabit Internet is not a new one, said Mr. Norman, the American consultant. But large-scale adoptions have not yet taken hold, especially outside Asia.
Hong Kong and Japan offer gigabit service. Australia has a plan in the works for 2018.Google is drafting pilot programs for part of the Stanford campus and other locales in the United States. And Chattanooga, Tenn., has started a citywide gigabit service, reportedly at a staggering $350 a month.
Any technical hurdles in upgrading the existing South Korean infrastructure are minimal, according to engineers and network managers. DSL lines — high-speed conventional telephone wires — will have to be replaced. But fiber-optic lines already widely in use are suitable for one-gigabit speeds.
South Korea, once poorer than Communist North Korea, now has the world’s 13th-largest economy. It recovered from the ravages of the Korean War by yoking its economy to heavy industries like cars, steel, shipbuilding and construction. But when labor costs began to rise, competing globally in those sectors got tougher, so “knowledge-based industries were the way forward,” Mr. Choi said.
South Koreans pay an average of $38 a month for connections of 100 megabits a second, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Americans pay an average of $46 for service that is molasses by comparison.
Mr. Choi declined to guess what private South Korean service providers might charge for the one-gigabit service. But he said it would be nowhere near the $70 a month charged for gigabit rates in Japan.
“I can’t imagine anyone in Korea paying that much,” he said. “No, no, that’s unthinkable.”
Mr. Choi’s gigabit program is just one of several Internet-related projects being coordinated by the government here over the next four years. Their overall cost is projected to be $24.6 billion, with the government expected to put up about $1 billion of that amount, according to the Korea Communications Commission.
Private South Korean firms, notably KT (the former Korea Telecom), SK Telecom and the cable provider CJ Hellovision, are the principal participants in the gigabit project. The government’s financial contribution in 2010, Mr. Choi said, would be just $4.5 million.
For now, most Korean consumers use their blessings of bandwidth largely for lightning Internet access and entertainment — multiplayer gaming, streaming Internet TV, fast video downloads and the like. Corporations are doing more high-definition videoconferencing, especially simultaneous sessions with multiple overseas clients, and technologists are eager to see what new businesses will be created or how existing businesses will be enhanced through the new gigabit capability.
One of the customers already connected to Mr. Choi’s pilot program is Moon Ki-soo, 42, an Internet consultant. He got a gigabit hookup about a year ago through CJ Hellovision, although because of the internal wiring of his apartment building his actual connection speed clocks in at 278 megabits a second.
But even that speed — about a quarter-gigabit — has him dazzled.
“It is so much more convenient to watch movies and drama shows now,” he said.