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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 May 2006, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
S Korea speeds up wi-fi on the go
In the first of three reports for the Six O'Clock News from South Korea, BBC News business correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones on the rise of ubiquitous internet access.

Mobile phone user in South Korea
South Koreans seem wedded to their mobile phones
In a high-rise suburb of Seoul, a shiny new bus is thundering through the streets.

On board, several laptops, some Samsung PDAs, and half a dozen local residents invited on board to try out a technology South Korea believes will give it a world first.

It is part of a trial of what the Koreans call Wibro, which stands for wireless broadband.

The new system promises to provide high-speed internet access, even in vehicles moving at more than 97 km/h (60mph), hence the bus.

Some 3,000 test subscribers are putting it through its paces right now, and in June it will be launched commercially with a Wibro zone covering Seoul and then other major cities.

In other words, wireless net access is going from being a series of small hotspots to a whole new network.

The young customers on the bus seem impressed.

"I'm catching up with a soap opera," says 24-year-old Lim Ji Young as she watches TV on a laptop screen. "My boyfriend is playing online games."

Blazing a trail

Wibro is just the latest phase in South Korea's ambitious plans to be a world technology leader.

It is already a trailblazer when it comes to high-speed internet access. Four in five homes have broadband, commonly enjoying speeds of between 20 and 50 Mbps.

The fact that much of the population is densely packed in high-rise apartment blocks has made it easier to hook them up.

Korean looking at Google
Four out of five households have access to the net
The country is also an early adopter of new mobile phone technology, with 3G phones very common and nearly a million subscribers now watching live TV on their mobiles.

Take a trip across Seoul and you see a population apparently obsessed with being connected, anytime, anywhere.

Deep underground in subway trains, they are making phone calls, while in the park they are watching football games on their mobiles, or playing online games.

The government is pushing what it calls the "ubiquitous dream" of a networked world.

There is even an aim to give every household an internet-connected robot by 2010.

At the Ministry of Information there is the Ubiquitous Dream Home, Go through the door with a wristwatch PC carrying your personal information and the home springs into action.

The lights come on, video messages from your neighbours appear on the TV, the fridge tells you it is out of eggs, and your wardrobe mirror gives you advice on what clothes would suit you today.

Broadband expertise

What role will wireless broadband play? It is hard to see quite why it is needed in a country where you can already get fast broadband at home, and use 3G phones to get data on the move.

Starcraft screenshot
Online gaming is extremely popular in South Korea
"What will it allow me to do that I can't do now?" I asked a senior manager at KT, the telecoms firm which is building the wibro network.

He stared at me for a full 10 seconds, apparently completely stumped by my question. Then he sprang into life.

"You'll be able to watch TV on the move, while e-mailing and downloading big files at the same time," he replied triumphantly.

South Korea hopes to export its wireless broadband expertise to other countries. The question is whether everybody else will be quite so keen on connectivity as the Koreans.

You can see the first of Rory Cellan-Jones' reports from South Korea on the Six O'Clock News on BBC One at 1800 BST on Tuesday.




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