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advanced wireless infrastructure != widespread mobile data usage

August 4, 2010

Recently I was back in my native city, Seoul Korea, for a vacation. As some of you may know, Korea is a country wired for broadband and mobile telephony. It consistently ranks in the top 3 world-wide for broadband speeds. Especially from a wireless perspective, it is pretty amazing. You can make calls and text message almost anywhere – and I mean anywhere!  It doesn’t matter if you are 5 stories below in an underground parking lot, riding an elevator up a 50 story building, or even taking a hike up a mountain near Seoul.  All the major variants of technology including CDMA / EV-DO Rev A, UMTS, and WiMax (or more exactly WiBro the Korean version) are available. This is all due to the hyper-competitive nature of the mobile industry where the SK Telecom, KT, and LG Telecom have been fighting it out in a saturated market the last 10+ years.

But over the years I’ve noticed that while everyone is addicted to cell phones and the cell phone coverage is the best in the world – the growth of a true mobile data users seemed to be lacking. Or maybe more exactly it was focused on voice and text messaging. So while the wireless data infrastructure was first class, the use of mobile data among the citizens seemed to be behind other countries including the USA.

This is most easily viewed when I looked at what people were doing in the subway. They did primarily three things.

  • Sent and received a constant stream of SMS messages (this was the most popular and done by young and old, even most senior citizens were texting more than talking on their phones)
  • Played games on their phones (mostly the games that come built in the phone)
  • Watched DMB TV on their phones or specialized devices (Note, in Korea, many phones have digital TV receivers in their phones.)

There were very few who were checking email or working on laptops/netbooks even though in Korea you usually have great data coverage even in a moving subway. Blackberries were introduces a year ago but I saw very few  users anywhere. There were some who were breaking this mold and those were mostly the folks using the recently introduced Apple iPhone or Android smartphones. The iPhone has been a phenomenal success in Korea selling over 700K since its introduction last year. The new Samsung Galaxy S Android phone also sold 300K in less than a month.

Initially this was strange to me. I would have thought in a mobile crazy county like Korea – mobile data usage would have exploded years ago. Mobile phones are fully integrated people’s lives here that is difficult to explain to people from the USA. People used them for voice communications but in many cases it is used more for texting and other forms of information communication such as looking up subway maps. Mobile phones are widely for payment and even for user identification on many websites.  Spam advertisement over text messages was a problem in Korea years ago.

But maybe that was precisely the problem. Between pervasive and innovative use of text messaging, simple data applications that used minimal data with simple user interfaces, my compatriots were living a very mobile centric life. For them to move on towards using mobile data more fully  something much more advanced had to be shown to them. The result was that they were half way up to mobile data nirvana and stopped – waiting for the next big thing. Admittedly much higher up than other countries but they were stopped.

Another aspect that fed into this delay was probably the fact that due to various reasons such as the fact that most people live near their offices (over 50% live in Seoul), are encouraged to work late into the night at the office rather than take work home, and also live in relatively small apartments with little space for home offices – telecommuting or the need to remotely connect to the office was not supported or encouraged by many companies. For example, connecting to company email from home was not supported by many big companies due to various concerns such as security. So a mobile worklife had not really developed.

I think this combination of a good enough mobile life combined with a lack of support for remote work capabilities led to lack of a push for heavy mobile data usage in Korea by consumers. (A third reason may also be cost as mobile data is still relatively expensive in Korea compared with other advanced nations.)

In my mind, this also explained why WiMax was not a run away success in Korea. There just was no use for it for most people. On the work side there was minimal support for remote telecommuting, while on the consumer side the biggest potential user of WiMax’s high bandwidth – video – was covered through DMB TV. Now with the introduction of smartphones and as this forces a more mobile data lifestyle a market may be forming. (For example, KT recently announced they were expanding the WiMax coverage.)

So I guess you can say that  even though the wireless infrastructure was ready, we had to wait for the smartphone revolution for the infrastructure to be fully used in Korea. I explored this smartphone driven change in lifestyle here.

Maybe this was obvious. A long meandering post on something that on hindsight seems obvious. But it has brought some clarity to my mind.

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