The future of mobile broadband has arrived -- in Korea

Korea's WiMax-like system provides faster, cheaper wireless broadband

The next time you're on the road and either can't find a Wi-Fi hot spot or it seems to take forever to download an important file via 3G, imagine you're in Seoul, South Korea. That's because Seoul's wireless WiBro network is nirvana for traveling professionals.

WiBro is a branded version of the same 802.16e-2005 WiMax standard that is coming to the US. In Korea, it delivers data three times faster than 3G networks, with typical download speeds as high as 6Mbit/sec.

"WiBro supplies much faster speeds [than 3G] for mobile users," says Unkoo Lee, manager of the WiBro planning department at Korea Telecom (KT). Besides being an employee of one of the Korean telecom operators that offers WiBro, Lee also is a regular user of the service. He says he uses it for e-mail, browsing the Web and creating content for the Internet, all while miles from his office.

Advocates say that WiBro and WiMax are game-changers for mobile professionals.

"WiBro can change the way mobile professionals work," claims Ron Resnick, president of the US-based WiMax Forum, a trade organization comprised primarily of WiMax-related vendors. "They don't need to return to the office to load up on data. They can stay on the road longer and get more done."

Despite business difficulties related to its cellular business, Sprint Nextel says it still plans to start rolling out its nationwide WiMax network this year. So looking at Korea's experience with WiBro could be a good indicator of what can be expected in the US.

Off to a slow start

Despite the optimism of WiMax supporters, the jury is still out about whether WiBro will become a widespread success in Korea. It was first deployed in pockets of Seoul two years ago. It's now available in Busan, Daeieo, Gwangju, Incheon and Ulsan, as well as at 17 Korean universities.

The service has not grown quickly. Offered by SK Telecom (SKT) and KT, WiBro had only 1,000 users a year after it was introduced.

"The system lacked devices and coverage," notes Derek Kerton, principal of The Kerton Group, a telecommunications consulting firm. "It was the equivalent of a loud yawn."

However, by the end of 2007, the two carriers combined for about 130,000 subscribers, according to IDC Korea. Based on KT reports, 60 per cent of WiBro's subscribers are mobile business people, 25 per cent are college students and the rest are a broad mix of other interested users.

The market research firm says those subscription numbers will increase significantly as coverage increases and as more WiMax-ready devices come to market. In particular, SKT and KT plan to cover 80 Korean cities by the end of 2008. As a result, IDC Korea forecasts that WiBro will have between 3.9 million and 5 million subscribers by 2011.

Faster, cheaper service

Kerton notes that, from both a marketing and technical perspective, WiBro still faces steep challenges, but it also has huge potential, primarily because it is cheaper and faster than 3G.

One of the most notable challenges, according to Kerton, is that, like all wireless technologies, WiMax can give you either long range or top speed, but not both at once. As with Wi-Fi, the closer you are to the transmitter, the faster the connection.

With WiMax, if you are next to a base station and are the only user on the network, and all other conditions are optimal, which is a rare set of circumstances, you theoretically could see download speeds of 60Mbit/sec.

In the real world, typical speeds of 3Mbit/sec. to 10Mbit/sec. are commonplace in South Korea, with 6Mbit/sec. being common, according to KT's Lee. While that's only one-tenth of the theoretical maximum speed, it's still significantly faster than the current generation of 3G, which provides typical speeds of 1Mbit/second, depending on conditions.

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