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August 18, 2009 3:06 PM

Korea Frames America's Wireless vs. Wireline Choice

The more I learn about what South Korea's doing related to its national broadband strategy the more impressed, inspired, and intimidated I become.

Impressed by how long they've been focused on the many issues surrounding broadband deployment and adoption, and how diligent and thoughtful they've been in working through whatever problems they faced to find creative solutions.

Inspired by the example they set for the US about how much progress can be possible when government is ready, able, and willing to set bold goals and have the programs in place to help achieve them effectively and efficiently.

But also intimidated by how far ahead of us South Korea already is in the race to be global leaders in the new digital economy, and how that gap grows wider the longer it takes for us to get into a more forward-looking mindset that goes beyond trying to answer the basic question of how to get everyone online and using the Internet.

That being said, I'm also confident that as Americans we can tackle any challenge and achieve anything we set our minds to. And to make sure that our minds are set properly, it makes sense we should be listening to countries like South Korea that have clearly progressed beyond us.

This line of thinking was inspired by watching today's FCC workshop on international lessons that have been learned, at which Young Kyu Noh from the Korean Embassy spoke.

During the Q&A; he laid out an argument that was stunning to me in its clarity and which if adopted would have a profound affect on our national broadband strategy.

He started by saying simply that taking a wireless-centric approach to broadband makes sense for developing countries that don't have any existing infrastructure to build off of and that need to use the most inexpensive option available.

But then he suggested that in developed countries there's a clear need for the capacity and reliability of wireline. To exemplify this, he shared how his kids complain about how slow the Internet is in the US, how in South Korea they're used to spending most of their time online watching videos and playing high resolution games, but that in the US they've had to limit their use of these bandwidth-intensive applications because our broadband networks are lacking compared to what they have on the other side of the Pacific.

I had never thought of it that way before, that developing countries get wireless, and developed wireline, in much the same way developed have advanced electricity grids whereas developing often must get by with local generators.

This then led me to think about the impact the availability of cheap, reliable electricity has had on economic development in the 20th century industrial economy, and how having access to cheap, reliable bandwidth will create the same enabling force for economic development in the 21st century digital economy.

But then that leaves this thought: by relegating rural areas to a wireless-only future we're basically treating them as developing countries and robbing them of their ability to be competitive in the global digital economy.

That doesn't sit right with me, doesn't feel very American, like our can-do spirit has devolved into a can't-do malaise, where we strive to be good enough but not the best.

Mr. Noh made clear, though, that this is not just a rural issue. He also shared how by Korea's estimation there may not be enough economic incentive for broadband providers to upgrade their networks much past 10Mbps. That private operators are more likely to try and squeeze as much revenue out of their existing networks with only small incremental upgrades for the foreseeable future. So, if we want to have a broadband future that's competitive globally, we need government to step in with the vision and resources to push us beyond what the market alone will provide.

Yet that doesn't just mean government writing checks. Rather, Mr. Noh shared how South Korea created a certification for aspirational broadband networks that lived up to certain standards. With that certification came a government stamp of approval that apartment owners could use to attract tenants and developers to sell homes. It's been such a success now that if your property doesn't have this certification then you'll be hard pressed to get anyone to buy/rent it.

That seems like a really smart way for government to start using market forces to the public's advantage in order to help drive investment in the next-generation wireline networks that we need.

The more I learn about what South Korea's doing, the more I think we have many lessons we can learn from their experiences that we can apply to formulating our own policies. Not that we should necessarily copy what they've done, but that we can combine their best practices with our own unique circumstances and talents so that we can do it even better than South Korea or anyone else ever has.

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