WORLD CUP - Hosts compete on phones, not pitch

The only way South Korea and Japan could ever face each other in the World Cup soccer tournament they will jointly host one month from now is if each makes it through to the final -- an unlikely prospect. However, that doesn't mean the co-hosts won't be battling on other fronts. The two North East Asian countries are fast becoming rivals in IT and telecommunication markets, and will be trying hard during the tournament to convince visitors that their country is the most advanced.

Nowhere can this race be seen better than in wireless telecommunication, where the battle has already begun. It explains why, while cellular carriers in Europe and North America have been postponing 3G (third-generation) plans, the carriers in Japan and South Korea have been racing ahead with theirs.

Japan's NTT DoCoMo Inc. launched commercial service on its 3G W-CDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) cellular network in October last year and kicked off the battle. While DoCoMo proclaimed its 3G service as the world's first, South Korean carriers complained that their CDMA2000 services, launched earlier in the year, deserve this title.

The claim was dubious; at 144k bps (bits per second), the CDMA2000 1x networks just make it into the International Telecommunication Union's definition of 3G. However, the ITU rates a 3G system as one which can provide 144k bps or faster from a moving vehicle -- and there the Korean operators report an average speed of 70k bps to 80k bps. The technology is also an upgrade to their existing second generation networks, and not operating in 3G spectrum, for which the carriers have additional licenses.

The South Korean carriers managed to get the last laugh. With the World Cup approaching fast, they upgraded the network again. In November they launched trials of a system with the unwieldy name CDMA2000 1x EvDO (Evolution Data Only). The new network will, in perfect conditions, whisk data along its way at 2.4M bps -- more than six times the speed of DoCoMo's service and enough to qualify as the fastest cellular service in the world.

Network coverage is still incomplete but SK Telecom Co. Ltd. has been racing to offer coverage in each of the World Cup host cities by the time the tournament begins.

"In May we will cover 26 cities nationwide including all the World Cup cities," said Kwon Chul Kuen, a spokesman for SK Telecom Co. Ltd. He said the upcoming tournament is very important for the carrier because it will put it on the world stage.

"In June, we will introduce all foreigners to our company's capabilities of wireless Internet. EvDO is very important because it is (the fastest in the world)," he said.

Of the six carriers, three in each country, only Japan's J-Phone Co. Ltd. won't have a new cell phone network up and running in time for the tournament. The carrier, which is owned by Britain's Vodafone Group PLC, had planned to launch its own W-CDMA network in June, but recently postponed the launch to December this year blaming delays in the standardization process.

South Korea and Japan are not alone in building infrastructure to support a major sporting event. Beijing is planning to invest US$3.6 billion in information technology in the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games, and a 3G cellular network is among the plans. Organizers have said the network will allow athletes to register their arrival via their cell phones.

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