South Korea long has been known for having the fastest internet in the world. Its connectivity speeds perennially top the rest of the world (see chart), and so does its broadband penetration. About 98% of South Korean households have broadband access versus 73% in the U.S. And good broadband in Korea is cheap -- not the $40 - $50 a month that the average U.S. user pays for much slower speeds, but $15 a month or less.
All of this means that technology culture in Korea is different. Seoul subway commuters have been quietly watching live television on their smart phones as nonchalantly as if they were at home for years. At bus stops, people check not bus schedules but digital maps showing the next bus’s whereabouts in real time. More people can turn on their apartment heat from their smart phones as they walk home or order groceries for delivery at a subway kiosk. And video streaming and online gaming long have been easier and more fun than elsewhere.
Of course, it’s easier to become the world’s most wired country when you have a small land mass that’s densely populated (note that apart from the U.S., none of the top 10 in internet speed are large countries in square miles). Korea has 50 million people, about 70% urbanized, packed into a piece of land the size of Indiana. That translates into a population density of 1300 people per square mile versus 88 in the U.S. -- and makes blanketing the country with broadband easier.
But density aside, the real reason for Korea’s digital development is that it made it a priority and planned and executed it. In 2006, it launched an ambitious “u-Korea Master Plan,” which stated that it would make information accessible to everyone anytime and anywhere using the world’s best infrastructure system. It called for 8 new IT services, 3 types of infrastructure, and 9 IT products to be developed in two phases through 2015.
More recently, there has been “Smart Seoul 2015,” which plans among other things to make free Wi-Fi available at 10,000 intersections, parks, and bus stops throughout the city. According to the head of national IT policy, “You shouldn’t be able to walk more than five minutes in any direction without access” (see Lauren Collins’ article on Korean smart phone app “Between” in The New Yorker, November 25, 2013). And in January of this year, the Korean government announced that it would invest $1.5 billion to develop 5G wireless service to be introduced in 2017 and rolled out fully by 2020. How fast will this be? Fast enough to download an 800 megabyte movie in one second. That’s going to have profound implications for work, culture, and the economy.
But Korea’s fast internet technology already has had many profound – and amusing -- cultural effects. Perhaps the most noted these days is that fast internet and early video streaming allowed Korea to perfect the music video format that would allow it to successfully export Korean pop culture all over Asia. Koreans grasped the power of video streaming early and used it to spread Korean pop, fashion, and drama all around the world. Known as the “Korean wave,” this phenomenon has turned into a valuable, sort of soft cultural influence. It’s also led some to believe that pop groups like the one shown here (Girls’ Generation) are as important a Korean export as the Samsung Galaxy and liquid crystal displays.