Why Does South Korea Have the Fastest Internet?
Internet

Why Does South Korea Have the Fastest Internet?

South Korea already has the fastest internet in the world, and it’s about to get a lot faster, with commercial 5G connections (upwards of a gigabit per second, or an HD movie in about two minutes) predicted within the next six years. According to internet research firm Akamai it holds a 40% average connection speed lead on Japan (in 2nd place) and a 55% advantage over US speeds. The 5G project is only the latest in a long line of initiatives designed to ensure that the Korean internet is in a constant state of evolution. 

But how does this Indiana-sized country between Japan and China, two modern tech giants, manage to sustain its undefeated speed record? And why doesn’t the rest of the world have anything like it? I went looking for answers, and came back with five:

  1. Government planning
  2. Healthy competition
  3. Urban population density
  4. Private-sector growth
  5. Korean culture

These are less entertaining than my initial explanation, which was that the South Korean internet is actually magic. However, taken together they make a great deal of sense. None of them is individually responsible for the blazing-fast speed of Korean data, but combining them reveals a country in the right place, at the right time, with the right mindset. Perhaps the thing that sets Korea apart the most, though, is how hard and long they worked to build an excellent system—which may be why moving there is probably the only way you can hope to get Korean-level internet speeds in the near future.

Government Planning

I interviewed Linda Butcher, Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute, and she consistently described its 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, as we shall see, 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, about 84% (94% of them on broadband) of South Korea’s population has internet access. These lively markets, in turn, spark further innovation. The government’s timely and well-executed internet policies gave it a huge head start, and they are continuing to pay off.  As Kyounglim Yun, Heejin Lee, and So-Hye Lim put it: “The Korean government has not only invested in the IT industry, but also promoted further investment in it.”

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 fiber 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.

Urban Population Density

One cannot imagine South Korea without 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 1/7of 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”—i.e., upgrades—as the International Telecommunication Union puts it. Fiber optic connections are expensive to build (that’s why Google Fiber isn’t knocking on your door yet) and DSL has steep performance loss over distances—but in South Korea physical gaps are barely an issue.

 

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 told me, “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, which is one of the primary forces behind the coming 5G revolution, 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.

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 emphasize achievement and education—historically a means of hierarchical advancement. The Korean government recognized 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. Korean parents, I learned from Butcher, now “connect education with the internet,” which is probably a helpful way to think in the 21st century.

So How Do We Get There?

There is no single aspect of the United States and other countries keeping them below Korea, but some, namely long distances between internet users in the US and the general lack of ISP competition—are significant. Indeed, six of the top 10 countries for internet speed rank in the top 20 most economically free; and nine out of the top 10 rank in the top 31 (outlier: Latvia).

As David Belson, Akamai’s director of market intelligence, pointed out, there is a “lack of effective competition amongst Internet Service Providers in the US” which leads to higher pricing (an obstacle to user adoption) and also “[provides] a disincentive for broadband providers to significantly raise the speeds included in their service tiers.” In short: the providers don’t risk much by not upgrading expensive infrastructure, as it is nearly impossible for anyone who isn’t Scrooge McDuck or Google to enter the market.

So is there a lesson that the US and the rest of the world can learn from South Korea and the other top-ranking internet countries other than “try being smaller and denser”? I would argue that, given the evidence we have seen, that private competition and non-restrictive government policies are the two most important factors in internet quality. Though by this time most countries have developed a well-entrenched system of providers and policies that would prefer not to make such changes, the reality of improvement is that it is accomplished by a process, not by a flip of the switch.

 

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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