SK Telecom Ltd. （SKM ） is hard at work developing what may be a key part of your digital future.
Honing Its Digital Game
SK Telecom Ltd. (SKM ) is hard at work developing what may be a key part of your digital future. It's called radio-frequency identification technology, or RFID. Here's how it might work: Strolling down a street in Seoul, you notice a billboard advertising flower delivery, and you remember it's your girlfriend's birthday. The billboard is equipped with an embedded radio chip. You whip out your mobile phone and press a "hot" key that connects with the chip and calls up information from the advertised flower shop on your phone's display. You select a bouquet of daffodils, and a query pops up asking if you want to include a song. You pick a ditty dedicated to daffodils, and click "send" to place your order, which is billed to the phone. The shop delivers the flowers, with a radio chip attached to the wrapping paper. Your girlfriend clicks the hot key on her phone, and it plays the song. She is happy you remembered; SK Telecom is delighted because it gets traffic and earns money from selling the music as well.
RFID is just one of a dozen new digital technologies under development in South Korea's bustling laboratories, part of a government-led campaign to ensure that the country doesn't lose its leading role as an innovator in information technology and telecommunications. "We are determined to maintain Korea's status as an IT leader," says Information Communication Minister Chin Dae Je. "Within a few years, Koreans will be connected anywhere, any time, and enjoy truly ubiquitous computing."
In the past decade, the country has invested billions of dollars to make itself the world's most wired - and wireless - nation. Today some three-quarters of South Korean households have broadband Internet hookups. Of the population of 48 million, 80% carries a mobile phone - that's virtually everyone over the age of 12. Many of these phones are equipped with cutting-edge technology allowing the users to take photos, surf the Net, and listen to music.
But other nations are narrowing the gap. So the government has launched a program designed to propel Korea ahead of the pack. It's called "IT839" - shorthand for the eight services, three infrastructure projects, and nine new or upgraded devices the country's tech wizards have decided to focus on over the next five years. The effort is expected to cost the government and private industry as much as $70 billion by 2010.
Few of the services or gizmos the South Koreans are working on are unique. Indeed, research on most, including RFID, is under way in the U.S. and Europe. What distinguishes South Korea's effort is the intense cooperation between the IT industry and the government - in sharp contrast with the U.S., where the government devotes few resources to the development of broadband and wireless technologies. Indeed, the soul of many of Korea's machines is not in the laboratories of Samsung Electronics Inc. or mobile operator SK Telecom, but at the state-run Electronics Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) in Daejon, 170 km south of Seoul.
There, 1,500 engineers - some of them paid by private industry, some by the government - are working on technologies involved in IT839. The institute's annual budget is $345 million - but that doesn't count the billions being spent on research and product rollouts by Samsung, LG Electronics Inc., and SK Telecom. "Our role is to help develop basic and core technology and make it a new global standard," says ETRI President Yim Chu Hwan. "Then new products will be developed by companies in the private sector."
The mobile phone is the focus of much of the research. Everyone assumes that in the future the handset will serve as the centerpiece of communications, entertainment, and computing for people on the go. South Korea has already launched a long-awaited advance in cell phones - live, extended, affordable television transmission on your phone, using a technology it calls digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB). TU Media Corp., an affiliate of SK Telecom, has signed up 76,000 Koreans for the service since May. Mobile video has been available for several years, but only at a high cost. Now, Do Se Kang, a 36-year-old Seoul software engineer, can pass the time on his one-hour bus commute from home to office watching news programs or a live soccer game via satellite. "This is great," Do says from his bus seat. "Watching TV on the small screen is much better than I thought." The cost for limitless TV viewing: $14 a month.
ETRI played a key role in developing DMB mobile TV. Its researchers created the technology, then Samsung Electronics and its rival LG Electronics rolled out cell phone-TV combos. ETRI has done the same for other important technologies. For instance, after Korea decided to adopt CDMA as its sole wireless standard in 1996 - rather than the GSM standard prevalent around the world - ETRI worked with Samsung and other companies to develop snazzy, high-performance phones that won wide acceptance in the U.S., which also uses CDMA. After stunning established rivals with their success with CDMA, Samsung and LG then elbowed their way into the GSM market.