MANILA, July 14, 2005
 (STAR) By Eden Estopace - Travel time from the Incheon International Airport to downtown Seoul takes about an hour and 20 minutes if you take the airport limousine bus. A taxi ride is not necessarily faster, only more private plus you get a bonus conversation with a cab driver who is sporting a fancy Samsung camera phone and definitely proud of his Korean car – a Kia Sportage – with a Global Positioning System (GPS) guiding the trip.

"It helps you avoid traffic and find the easiest route to your destination, ma’am," he says, pointing to the tiny box that receives the GPS signal.

Ubiquitous technology? Well, yes. But not yet.

Ubiquitous is the hardly the word to describe Korean technology, even with an information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure branded as second only to Japan in the Asia-Pacific region.

But according to Dr. Chang Kon Kim, president of Korea’s National Computerization Agency (NCA), it is definitely getting there. That is, if the grand vision rolled out by the Ministry of Information and Culture pans out.

Under the vision dubbed "Ubiquitous Korea," the country will be transformed into a complete information society in about 10 years when convergence of the real world and cyberspace is completed.

The "u-society," according to the Korean master planners, will have a fully connected society by 2015 by pioneering "u-infrastructure," developing "u-technology," fostering "u-industries" and shaping a "u-government."

Bureaucrat lingo? Give it to the Korean government to engineer the transformation of an industrial society into an IT society. After all, Chang said during a dinner for the international press covering the 19th Solutions and Contents Exhibition of Korea (SEK 2005), it took Korea only 40 years to fully industrialize, by far a shortcut to what Western countries achieved in roughly 200 years.

South Korea’s "informatization," he said, started only in 1982 when Korea Telecom (KT) was set up as a public corporation and tasked to see what the future looked like for Korea in the ICT space. By the 1990s, the key driver of the country’s IT development shifted to the private sector.

In 2004, the IT sector’s contribution to the Korean economy was 14 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Korea has also been ranked as the country with the highest number of broadband subscribers, with 12.5 million out of 14 million households hooked up to high-speed Internet. Its mobile phone penetration is also one of the highest in the world at 75.9 percent, with 36.57 million out of its 50 million people having cellphones.

In his keynote speech during the opening conference of SEK 2005, Youngkyung Lee, president and chief executive officer of KT, admitted that the Korean IT market has already entered a mature stage and is therefore characterized by a general slowdown in growth.

But for the enterprising Koreans, an industry showing signs of fatigue is not all bad news, but another window of opportunity. With most people having an Internet connection and high-tech camera phones, "we have to find new means of sustaining growth," Youngkyung said.

And one of the ways to find the next growth wave is through intra-industry convergence. IT will definitely be the driver and enabler of this new trend.

The ‘U-Society’

A ubiquitous society, according to Chin Dae-je, minister of information and communication, can be achieved through a strategy he calls "IT839."

Under this scheme, eight new services will prompt investments into building three essential networks, which will, in turn, pave the way for nine sectors to grow fast.

The eight new services being piloted in Seoul are wireless broadband (wiBro), digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB), home network service, telematics, radio frequency identification (RFID)-based service, W-CDMA service, terrestrial digital television and Internet telephony.

At this point, the operators’ licenses and services are being readied for wiBro, and commercial services are expected to be launched in 2006.

As for the DMB service, SK Telecom, Korea’s largest operator, launched last May the country’s first DMB broadcast on cellphones and to date, it has 60,000 subscribers. Terrestrial DTV, on the other hand, is currently being worked out, with plans to launch broadcast service next year.

There are currently 1.5 million networked service homes and the target is for at least 10 million homes to avail themselves of the service by 2007.

Telematics, although already popular in major cities with 750,000 users, is not really that ubiquitous at the moment. The target is for at least four million vehicles to be equipped with GPS by 2007.

The massive deployment and adoption of these eight services, according to Chin, will necessitate the building of a broadband convergence network, a ubiquitous sensor network and next-generation Internet Protocol (iPv6).

Chang told journalists that the South Korean government sees its role more in this area, particularly in providing the overall infrastructure as well as the institutional and legal frameworks to make the vision of IT839 happen.

And out of the investments in the three essential networks, it is expected that nine cash cows will emerge – mobile phone handsets and equipment, digital TV set-top boxes and other broadcasting devices, home network devices, IT systems-on-chip, next-generation PCs, embedded systems, digital content and solutions, telematics devices and intelligent service robots.

As it is now, Korean companies such as Samsung Corp. and LG Electronics are already key players in the global mobile and semiconductor markets.

In an interview, Daniel Chung, vice president of the Overseas Marketing Strategy Group of Samsung Corp.’s Mobile Communications Division, said that as much as 90 percent of their handset sales are generated overseas.

The IT839 strategy, Chin affirmed, is part of a broader goal of sustaining the pillars of Korean economy and achieving a $20,000 GDP per capita in a few years.

For the average Koreans, though, "ubiquitous" is still a vague word. Soh Young-Jin, vice president of NCA’s IT Project and Performance Evaluation Division, said that over the years, Koreans have to define for themselves what a "u-society" means.

In the meantime, the SEK 2005, the largest IT exhibition in Korea, provided visiting journalists with a glimpse of the innovations and high-tech digital equipment currently shaping on the domestic front. Organized by Electronic Times, a leading IT daily in Korea, the event showcased the IT products and technologies of 209 companies from 10 countries.

David Steel, vice president of Samsung’s Digital Media Business, summed it up best: "The vision of ‘u-Korea’ is not so much a technology vision as it is a lifestyle vision."

A few years down the road, one can only guess how a trip to downtown Seoul from Incheon would be like. Would GPS be obsolete?

Maybe, maybe not. But there is something always to look forward to in a city of so many bridges and of the Han River cutting across the urban landscape.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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