South Korean Conference Defines Wireless Future

An international conference on wireless communication in South Korea is drawing tech professionals from across the globe. South Korea is one of the most connected societies in the world, a place where innovations often emerge.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The next time you're trying to find an Internet hotspot - a public place where you can connect to the Internet wirelessly - you may want to try Seoul, South Korea.

South Korea, according to JiWire, a company that tracks Internet hotspots, Seoul has more of them than almost any other city in the world.

South Korea is a world leader in most wireless communications, cell phones and Internet, ahead of the United States in some cases. It recently hosted high-tech companies and government officials from around the world at a major convention. And they were trying to learn why South Korea is so far ahead.

Technology writer Mario Armstrong went along to this conference and he's on the line from Seoul. Mario, where are you?

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Technology Writer): I'm in the Grand Intercontinental Hotel, just a few miles away from where the 2006 iMobicon Conference was being held.

INSKEEP: Well, let's get to the important stuff here. How's your wireless connection?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: My wireless connection is excellent. And you know, the funny thing is, some of the other U.S. representatives that were here, they were all constantly looking at their cell phones to see how much bars they actually had. And surprisingly enough, we always seemed to have full throttle, up to five bars. And even in elevators we were still getting solid connections.

INSKEEP: People were basically saying to each other, can you text me now?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Oh, right. Can you text me now. Not can you hear me now.

INSKEEP: Or something like that, I suppose.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: It's interesting. You know, here you don't really worry about dropping a call. In the United States it seems to be the exact opposite. Can you hear me now, more bars in more areas; it's all this focus on whether or not your call should even go through. And in Korea that's already a given.

INSKEEP: Does this mean that if I have any kind of cell phone, it's going to work on any kind of nearby cell tower? Everybody's systems work with everybody else's systems, and therefore things work smoothly wherever you are?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes. The answer is yes. The interoperability is the technical term for that. It seems that that (unintelligible) mobile phone service provider is more about empowering the people.

INSKEEP: Mario, I hate to say it, but you started to drop out there for a moment.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Oh, did I?

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: But I'm sure that's the international phone line. If we take as a given that service is pretty good inside South Korea, what role has the government played?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: The government has played a very strong position. They have really centered technology as a focus of their government. For example, they would like to see an export of software development to the U.S. by 2007 of $3.4 billion.

They are really focused on empowering the company with the standards and the collaboration that they need and not really getting in the way of allowing these companies to create new and interesting and innovative services.

INSKEEP: Mario, we are talking about a comparatively small country here, with a comparatively small number of business tycoons who tend to be quite closely connected to the government and can work with it. Is there anything about that model that Americans can really learn from and copy, given that it's just a very country here?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, that goes back to the collaboration with government. You're talking about - in Seoul, Korea you're looking at about a total population close to 12 million, and you're right, the major companies do have that type of relationship with the government.

INSKEEP: We're on a mostly clear phone connection with Seoul, South Korea, which is where we found Mario Armstrong. He's a freelance writer. He hosts a technology program on member station WYPR in Baltimore and he's a regular guest on our program.

Mario, good to talk with you again.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Good to talk to you, Steve.

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