A Michelin Ranking for the Internet Era

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (07/17/2000) - When I moved house recently, it hit me -- the realization that modern technology has become such an integral part of my life that I'm no longer willing to be without it.

Browsing through apartments at real estate agents, I found myself rejecting those that didn't have a south-facing balcony. Not for the usual concerns, like the lack of sunlight that might make it into my rat-hole sized Tokyo apartment, but because I needed a good location to stick my satellite dish.

The real estate agents listened to my request but I'm not sure they understood it. Obviously not tech junkies, they didn't appreciate my need for a satellite link and seemed unable to comprehend how empty life can be without a constant connection to CNN, Cartoon Network, ESPN or Channel V.

A south facing balcony wasn't my only requirement. I was sure, I told them, that I wanted to live within the Tokyo metropolitan area and not in one of the prefectures surrounding the city, where life can be cheaper, the streets greener and the nights a little quieter.

The reason? A faster Internet connection, of course. There isn't one available here yet -- hardly any areas of Tokyo have anything better than 64K-bps ISDN -- but as soon as NTT, the 1,000 pound gorilla that likes to put on dresses and pretend to be our caring local telephone company, gets around to launching ADSL, it will be within the city limits. The poor souls living outside of this area might wait a year or longer for their connections.

I think I must be pretty much alone on this one, as the estate agents looked at me strangely when I relayed my high-speed dependency. But am I a nerd, I wondered, or just a few clicks ahead of the curve? Maybe in a few years, access to telecommunications will be as important in Tokyo as proximity to a railway station or the local supermarket.

A couple of weeks after I moved, I found myself in South Korea, at the Ministry of Information and Communications. More than any other nation in the world, South Korea is a leader in providing broadband Internet access to the home, and I wanted to know why.

That's when I met Jae Lee, director of the information network office at the ministry. Lee created a system for ranking apartment blocks according to their level of Internet-readiness. The rankings are encouraging construction companies to wire their buildings for the Web, which in turn is making people think more about the connectivity of homes they are considering moving into.

The ranking system should be good news for people living in Korea, where more than half of the population of 40-plus million live in sprawling apartment complexes. Those people should find they have access to a greater choice of wired apartments. It's also great for construction companies, who can use communications access as a way to differentiate their properties.

The idea is simple. In the planning stages, constructors contact the ministry and present their plans for new buildings. These are assessed on a range of criteria, from the type of cable used in the building to the connection speed available to the outside world. Buildings are then ranked with a rating of one, two or three stars, which can be advertised by property companies -- much as fine restaurants and hotels can display a star-rating awarded by the Michelin guide.

Partly because of the rating scheme, according to Lee, around 80 percent of new apartment buildings are being wired for high-speed Internet access. The contrast with Tokyo couldn't be greater, where apartment hunters are lucky if their new apartments have basic cable TV.

As for me, I managed to find a nice place with a large, south facing balcony on which to put my satellite dish. And yet still the balcony doesn't seem quite complete. At first I thought it needed a few plants, but then it dawned on me:

I need a second dish.

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