Wireless Heaven: WiBro Blankets Seoul With High-Speed Internet
By Cho Jin-seo
Koreans have very high expectations on the quality and the speed of telecommunication systems, whether they are mobile phones or broadband Internet lines or a mobile TV. And that standard is being raised even higher this year with the introduction of Mobile WiMax (WiBro) network in major cities this year.
It is a laudable feat to blanket a whole city with a seamless wireless Internet network, but Korea’s fledging WiMax business hasn’t received its due respect from the public yet. Only a few places in the world, such as Philadelphia and Anaheim, have city-wide wireless networks, but none of them can match the speed and the coverage of WiMax networks of Seoul, a mega city where more than 10 million people live and work.
The best place to experience the full capacity of the Mobile WiMax is the road ― while the conventional wireless Internet network, called WiFi, reaches only a few dozen meters from transmitters, WiMax users can stay online while traveling at 100 kilometers per hour on the highway, from Seoul to Bundang or to Incheon International Airport.
WiMax is also considered superior than the HSDPA system that uses the mobile phone network. The average download speed of WiMax in Seoul is 3 megabits per second, compared to 1 megabits of HSDPA, said Yeom Woo-jong, public relations manager of KT.
“WiMax and HSDPA have respective advantages: WiMax is faster, while HSDPA has a betterpenetration into buildings because it shares the same systems of existing mobile phone networks,” he said.
Between Jan. 15 and Feb. 4, The Korea Times conducted field tests of KT’s WiMax service around Seoul. Testers used a Lenovo laptop PC and a finger-sized modem that comes with the WiMax subscription for free.
High-speed on highways
The WiMax modem was plugged into a USB port of the laptop, and the green light started to blink in about 10 seconds to indicate it went online. The test vehicle hit the Seoul-Busan expressway, the main artery of South Korea, from its starting point near Hannam Bridge to Pangyo exit near Bundang, about 30 kilometers south of Seoul. To see whether the network works constantly, testers launched a real-time Web broadcasting channel of MBC TV, which requires a high-speed Internet connection for viewing.
The result was almost flawless. During the 20-minute journey, the TV streaming had only two brief interruptions, each of them lasting less than one second. It actually seemed like a problem of the broadcasters’ network, not WiMax’s, because the Internet connection of the laptop remained online.
The speed of the car was not an issue. The TV continued to play in full quality even when the car was running at well over the legal limit of 100 kilometers per hour.
WiMax, however, did not work perfectly working when taking a detour onto a less crowded road. On the way back to Seoul, the car headed to an intercity highway from Bundang to Suseo. This time, testers launched Bloomberg Web TV channel, which is free on Gom TV program, and the screen abruptly went off when the car was running through the green-belt area midway through the journey. The laptop’s Internet connection was completely cut off, and it took several minutes to reconnect it to the network. Once the car gets inside the Seoul city boundary, it began to work perfectly and flawlessly again.
Another fine spot to enjoy the Internet-on-the-go experience is the Seoul subways. KT has laid cables and transmitters throughout the Seoul, Bundang and Gwacheon metro lines, and test rides showed that the underground connection speed sometimes seemed faster than the aboveground network.
WiMax worked as well in stationary positions as in moving vehicles. Populated areas such as Shinchon, Gwanghwamun and Itaewon all showed a good connection speed that matches the speed of fixed-line broadband networks.
The wave signals, however, tend to become weaker in deep residential areas and underground shops. There were places where the modem lost connection in small alleys of low-lying Hannam-dong. In a vast apartment complex in Banpo, southern Seoul, the signal strength varied between “full-speed” to “no signal” as the test car navigated through the forest of long, flat buildings.
“WiMax was originally designed for outdoor use for people on move, because most homes and offices already have fixed-line connections. But there are growing needs for in-building use of WiMax from our customers, and we are planning to meet such demands, too,” KT’s Yeom said.
The general quality of KT’s WiMax system proved to be superb in Seoul and Bundang. The company currently serves city-wide networks in Seoul and Bundang, and hot-spot services in downtown areas of five other big cities ― Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju and Ulsan. The company plans to expand the coverage to the whole metropolitan area of Seoul, which hosts half of South Korea’s 50 million population. In doing so, the firm is to spend 120 billion won more this year.
KT plans to have 400,000 WiMax subscribers by the end of this year. But a limited choice of WiMax gadgets is one reason that made WiMax less popular than it deserves to be. So far there are a total of 18 WiMax products from KT ― 10 modems, three mobile phones, and five portable PCs. The subscription fee for unlimited use is 19,800 won per month, including a free USB modem, compared to around 10,000 won for ADSL speed connections to around 30,000 won for optical fiber lines.
SK Telecom, the largest mobile operator in Korea, is another WiMax operator in Korea. But in a recent conference call with investors, the company said it would not make much investment in the business in the near future. The decision will virtually leave KT the lone operator of WiMax for some time.
Mobile WiMax, better known as its brand name WiBro in Korea, is the next-generation mobile and wireless Internet service that can cover a whole city or even a whole nation. Korean firms such as KT, SK Telecom, Samsung, POSTECH and institutions such as ETRI have been leading in this field, so the government has given strong support to the establishment of the dream network.