Photo via flickr/emmanuel DYAN
You'd think as a global superpower in the information age the United States could manage to get internet speeds above a crawl. I mean, we invented the thing. Yet the US barely makes the top 10 fastest wireless connections worldwide, and pales in comparison to the current leader, South Korea.
Now the gap's about to get even wider. Two of South Korea's major mobile carriers, SK Telecom and LG's Uplus Corp, are launching a new broadband network that will offer LTE-Advanced wireless at 300 megabits per second—about four times faster than the country's existing record-high download speeds. SK Telecom will also showcase a service that it claims will go as high as 450 mbps at the 2014 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month.
That's more than 50 times faster than the average broadband connection speed in the US, which is just 8.7 mbps, according to the most recent State of the Internet report from Akamai. (The national average for South Korea was 13.3 mbps, with high-speed mobile networks at 75 or 250 mbps.) With the new lightning-fast network rolling out this year, South Korean citizens could download an 800-megabyte movie on their phone or tablet in just 22 seconds—as soon as smartphone chips to support the new service become standardized. Meanwhile here in the US, downloading an HD movie takes almost an hour. So why is South Korea's web so completely schooling us?
For one, because there's more competition in the broadband marketplace. It's not hard to have more competition than the US, where we basically get to choose between a giant corporate cable company or a giant corporate phone company. But South Korea in particular has made connectivity one of the nation's top priorities, both economically and culturally. It adopted policies back in the 90s to pull itself out of financial crisis by focusing on high technology. The government encouraged citizens to get online, built a national infrastructure for high-speed internet, and established regulations that promoted a competitive broadband market.
The US, on the other hand, has a "closed network" system—it doesn't require ISPs to share their pipes, making it harder for other companies to enter the market. South Korea's network is more open, allowing for more competition, which drives speeds up and prices down. The country also has a super dense population, with some 1,200 people per square mile. Today, more than 80 percent of South Koreans are wired, and Seoul's been called the "bandwidth capital of the world."
The new network will boost mobile internet speeds using carrier aggregation technology. It increases bandwidth by stitching together two or more different frequency bands, essentially making it possible to squeeze more bits into each megahertz of frequency. As of now, South Korea’s LTE 4G coverage tops out at 75 mbps and LTE-Advanced at 225 mbps. SK Telecom's "LTE-Advanced 3-band aggregation" will bump speeds up to 450 mbps.
What's more, South Korea's science ministry just announced it will invest $1.5 billion in and work with local telecoms to roll out a 5G wireless service that's 1,000 times faster than the current 4G network. It'll shorten that 800-megabyte movie download to just one second. The plan is to have the new service commercially available by 2020. The hyper-connected country isn't about to lose its title as the world's fastest wireless.
"We helped fuel national growth with 2G services in the 1990s, 3G in the 2000s and 4G around 2010. Now it is time to take preemptive action to develop 5G," the ministry said in a statement to AFP. "Countries in Europe, China and the US are making aggressive efforts to develop 5G technology ... and we believe there will be fierce competition in this market in a few years."