When my wife and I arrived in Iksan, South Korea, last fall to teach English, we stepped into perhaps the most Internet-crazed country in the world. What tipped us off? Well, one example is that South Korea has a high school where students train in the game Starcraft like Texas high schoolers practice football.
That’s easier to understand when you learn that South Korea is the most Internet-connected country in the world. That connectedness makes it very simple to play real-time online strategy games like Starcraft. From gaming rooms filled with high-end PCs to locals speaking freely about downloading movies, it’s clear that the Internet is firmly entrenched in most South Koreans’ daily lives.
PC bang a gong
For starters, there are “PC bangs” everywhere. Bang is Korean for room, and there are at least ten of these computer rooms in my neighborhood, each filled with dozens of high-end systems all networked together and then riding a fat pipe to the Net. And I’m not even living in a large Korean city.
At first glance, a PC bang looks like a cubicled-office, with high-backed, comfortable leather chairs in front of desks with LCD screens. Smoking is allowed, and usually several of the mostly college-age users are puffing away.
The Koreans mostly play online role-playing games like World of Warcraft and Lineage II or strategy games such as StarCraft. This game is so popular here that there are two TV channels dedicated to showing matches.
You pay about a dollar an hour to use a PC bang. You can browse the Web or check your e-mail, but most folks use them for gaming. Imagine being able to have your own Counter-Strike LAN party on excellent gaming machines for a buck an hour per person. That’s what we’ve been doing lately. Hoo-ah.
Broadband at home
But what’s more amazing is the near ubiquity of broadband in the home. Two years ago, the South Korean government promised to expand the broadband infrastructure to reach every household by the end of this year.
An ambitious, nearly US$11 billion program, it appears to be working. Studies have shown that over a quarter of Koreans have broadband and that anyone who wants it can sign up — with some ISPs charging as little as $19 a month for DSL. I pay $30 myself, for a 1.5-megabits-per-second (mbps) connection — twice the speed of my $50-a-month service back home in the United States.
The majority of the broadband is DSL, but cable is also available. Jae-ho Jang, a bar owner in Iksan, says that his package deal of cable TV and cable Internet access costs him $17 a month, but other users say that cable access averages around $30 — still a lot cheaper than in the States.
And if you need ultrafast Internet access, it’s available. Shin Cho, an electronics lecturer at WonKwang University, has a 100-mbps network at his home on the outskirts of Seoul that costs about $20 a month for the broadband. “The reason that we can have this system at home is that the cost of PCs and Internet service is pretty affordable for most families in Korea,” he says. The Korean government is planning on having this level of broadband available to all of Korea by 2010.
Cho says that the main user of their connection is his aunt, who uses it for shopping and for staying connected to her online community of photographers. “They exchange photos and view each other’s work in the community,” he says. Online communities such as Cyworld (www.cyworld.com) are extremely popular in Korea.
I took an informal survey of one of my classes of adult college students and professionals — 80 percent of them had a broadband connection. And even though they’re fluent in English, it took a couple minutes to clarify the term “broadband” because that’s the only type of Internet connection available. When asked if they had ever used a dial-up connection, In Me So, a computer science major at WonKwang University said, “I remember using a 56K modem once, about eight years ago.”
Broadband is almost everywhere, says Cho. “It resulted from government policies. The nationwide establishment of the broadband networks have been strongly encouraged and concentrated with the current administration,” he says.
The ubiquity of broadband has affected a huge proportion of the population. Downloading music, TV shows, and movies is done in large numbers, especially among the college-age crowd. There aren’t any threats of lawsuits from the RIAA to dissuade users, and it’s done so universally that most of the folks I talked to about it don’t really think of it as wrong.
I used music downloading recently as a discussion topic for an advanced level English class I taught. Every one of the students in the class downloaded music files on a regular basis, and most of them downloaded movies. Even some of my younger students are taking advantage of their broadband — one seventh grader asked whether, if he brought a burned copy of the third Harry Potter movie in on Video CD, we could watch it in class.
(Note: It’s this level of downloading that prompted the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to elevate Korea to the Priority Watch List last year for intellectual rights violations).
But the widespread connectivity isn’t just impacting the youth of Korea. Some farmers have taken to selling their organic fruits and vegetables online. “Sometimes there’s failure because the appearance isn’t as good,” said In-hoon Kim, a pharmacist in the town of Iksan. “But sometimes it does well for them to have it on their Net Cafe (Web site).”
And many Koreans use their broadband to improve their English. Jung Kyun Oh, a doctor in Iksan, speaks to a friend in Hong Kong weekly via Skype, a free Internet telephony application. “I use it as much as I can,” he says. “We’re able to practice English together, and when we’re talking it doesn’t even feel like studying.”
The country’s next goal is to do the same with WiBro — wireless broadband — that it did with wired broadband. The government has said that commercial launch of the high-speed wireless services will start in 2006.
Wireless, in general, is just starting to take off in this country. In Seoul, there are myriad hotspots to log in for free. In Iksan, which is a “rural” city of 350,000 located about 100 miles south of Seoul, wireless use is still quite sporadic. But not for long.
“Wireless will rapidly supplant wired connections in the very near future,” says Cho, the electronics lecturer. “Currently, I would guess that less than 5 percent of computers in Korea connect to the Internet wirelessly. But I don’t think that many of those Centrino notebook owners want to let their machines keep dangling from wires.”