I was lucky enough to visit South Korea in 2013 to attend the Small Cells Asia conference in Seoul, the country’s capital. It’s a fun, fast and frantic place where anyone and everyone is connected and online, all the time.
I’ve spent time in a lot of big cities around the world over the past four or five years, including the likes of London, Paris, San Francisco, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and more – but nowhere do people walk around with their faces and thumbs glued to their mobile devices quite like Seoul.
The city and indeed the whole country are powered by technology – perhaps not surprising given that the world’s biggest technology company, Samsung, is from there. When I visited, Korea was the only country on earth which boasted 100 per cent 4G mobile internet access and the entire country is a big mobile network extending to all of its 50 million citizens. Around 90 per cent of the country is estimated to be active internet users. Impressive numbers, but they don’t really tell you the whole story. Technology in Korea is a cultural thing. It’s ingrained.
From the moment you arrive at Seoul’s Incheon Airport you just immediately feel like you’re in a highly-evolved technological country. The Arex, the express train that connects the airport with downtown Seoul, is state of the art, fast and clean and comes complete with all sorts of information screens and the ubiquitous mobile internet access. Having arrived in Seoul station and transferred from the overground to the underground, you find that the city’s spacious, immaculate metro system is also entirely covered by 4G connectivity. The ticket machines are all touch-screen, fast and efficient to use. The ticket barriers are also touch screen and quite simply, work. Korea puts a lot of thought into its technological infrastructure and is justifiably proud of the results. Some countries you still feel the frustration of technological solutions which have been implemented on the cheap or in a hurry to be first to market, and they often either break down or don’t deliver on their promised service. You never have that feeling in Korea.
Devices, devices everywhere
If you live in a modern, urban environment or big city then the chances are you are by now completely used to seeing people walk along with their eyes and thumbs stuck to their mobile devices. What that means is that the place you live is covered by a mix of 3G, Wi-Fi and possibly, depending on your home country, 4G LTE too. Some places can still take you by surprise however.
Seoul is, as mentioned, completely covered by 4G. The part of town in which I was staying, Gangnam (yes, that one), was also pretty much blanketed by Wi-Fi in every bar, café and restaurant. This is a bit of an issue for the Korean mobile network operators, since when users are offloading onto Wi-Fi in public venues, they’re not using the 4G on their data plans – thereby not spending any money of course. The universal Wi-Fi does throw up some nice little wrinkles though, such as the below napkin dispenser which also operates as a call device for your waiter or waitress. Give the number 19 a push, your server gets a buzz on their handset and comes running with a cold beer, some kimchi or whatever is your choice.
So to the devices. Over the course of 2012 mobile and tablet penetration in Korea doubled. Smartphone penetration is now at 67 per cent of the country, quite comfortably ahead of its most technologically-advanced western peers. 89 per cent of users has a defined data plan with one of the country’s three MNOs, Korea Telecom, SK Telecom or LG UPlus. Average revenue per account (ARPA) is around $50 US – not bad, but not as high as the MNOs would like it to be of course.
Tablets have had their own growth spurt, but unsurprisingly lag behind smartphones. Penetration in 2012 was at 7.5 per cent of the population, up from 3.1 per cent in 2011. So the devices are getting there, but it is in the user habits where Korea really goes a bit bananas.
Basically, Koreans admit to using their smartphones obsessively. 60 per cent of smartphone users say they spend 2 hours or more on their device every day, while tablet users spend even longer, with 75 per cent of them spending a minimum of 2 hours a day browsing, streaming and sharing. The country is technology-obsessed and possibly even irretrievably addicted to pushing, swiping, tapping and scrolling. But then in a country which has gone out of its way to make even its lavatories a challenge to even the most technologically-savvy visiting foreigner, is that really at all surprising? It’s a fascinating country and if you want to experience a land of blanket 4G where even the public conveniences are techno-toilets, I recommend you pay it a visit.