Why Can’t We Be Like South Korea?

A scene from Cheounghakdong, South Korea, slated to be a “GIGAtown.” Photo courtesy Sun Woo Lee.

When Internet access is slow or just nonexistent in the US, we shrug our shoulders. But in that small Asian nation, lousy connections are not tolerated.

I’m working this summer with a rising senior at St. Paul’s School, Sun Woo Lee, who lives in Seoul when she’s not at boarding school here in the States. It’s been astounding to hear her describe the contrast between communications in Concord, New Hampshire, where her school is, and what happens in South Korea. And in light of a recent daylong gathering here at Harvard Law School among people interested in Internet access across Massachusetts, I thought you’d be interested in a few nuggets of comparison.

The bottom line: Rural areas in New England are mostly — with some shining exceptions — struggling to come up with a route to fiber-optic-plus-WiFi access that will allow people to work from home and generally participate in the modern world. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to find a rural section of South Korea that doesn’t have fantastic high-capacity Internet access.

Here’s a story that says it all. Several years ago when Sun was playing squash in a sports club in Seoul and couldn’t get a strong data connection on her smartphone, her coach got quite excited and urged her to send in a report. Why? Because one of the three major communications companies in Korea, KT, had sponsored a contest to reward people who located weak high-capacity connections anywhere in the country. The prize: A year’s worth of free service.

In America, when our phone signals us that our connectivity is dicey or nonexistent, we shrug. What else is new? But in South Korea, that condition is so rare that finding it is a rare and wondrous event, like Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.

Apologists say that the United States is a vast country with hills, valleys and deserts — hard to connect. They don’t mention that South Korea, a mostly mountainous place, has lakes and islands galore. But you would have to isolate yourself from society just about entirely in order to find a low-Internet-access spot in Sun’s native land.

Consider the most traditional village of Korea, Cheonghakdong, located on the southern slopes of Jirisan Mountain. It’s a kind of Korean Colonial Williamsburg taken to an extreme: no T-shirts or hats sporting English slogans are allowed in the village, the two hundred residents wear traditional Korean hanbok clothing, and everyone who lives there works in the fields. It’s a place for the preservation of traditional Korean culture, learning, and values, and it didn’t have electricity until the 1990s.

This month, KT and Cheounghakdong announced that the village will become a “GiGA town,” with world-class fiber access. So teachers in highly-traditional Cheounghakdong classrooms will be lecturing about Confucian values to the world, and they’ll be using Chinese-calligraphy-compatible electronic chalkboards to convey what they’re talking about to remote (but fully present) participants appearing on high-resolution video screens. The town will electronically introduce itself to online tourists in four languages. Seniors living in Cheounghakdong will be using a mobile telemedicine service called Yodoc.

It’s not just villages in rural areas that get this attention. Tiny islands off the Korean coast have 150 Mbps service sold by multiple Internet service providers. And the ferries that ply their ways between the mainland and those islands also have terrific Internet access.

Can you imagine? No, you can’t. But you should. And that brings me back to that Harvard Law School event, organized by a Berkman Center for Internet & Society research team. It brought together more than 70 municipal and state leaders and other guests from across the state who are curious about high-capacity fiber Internet access. The event provided strong visible evidence of the possible.

Although U.S. federal policymakers don’t have a route to ubiquitous passive fiber networks yet (other than admirable programs for American schools and libraries) hundreds of cities and towns across the country have gotten fed up with the lousy and expensive connectivity with which they’re currently stuck. And they’re developing some entrepreneurial approaches to fiber. (Christopher Mitchell keeps track of all of this for you here; Next Century Cities is aggregating a lot of this municipal-level energy.)

Participants heard how Holyoke, MA, a global center of 19th century paper manufacturing that in recent years has suffered from depopulation and economic decline, is now getting an economic boost from its municipal fiber optic network. (Here’s the case study describing in more detail what’s happened in Holyoke.) Holyoke’s municipal gas and electric utility, HG&E, sells fiber optic services to hundreds of business customers and the city of Holyoke. The great connectivity in Holyoke helped attract a huge academic data computing center at the same time that the town is saving more than $300,000 per year in access costs, which is good news for everyone.

HG&E has been able to use careful planning and artful collaboration to extend ISP and project management services to three other municipalities in Massachusetts — its telecom division revenue is modestly growing, and the division produced $500,000 in net earnings over the past decade. And other than a modest one-time cash investment in the late 1990s, Holyoke has never had to issue debt or otherwise subsidize the HG&E network.

Today, HG&E is considering selling fiber connections to homes. Its 113-year reputation, fine customer service, and general trustworthiness suggest that residents will be enthusiastic.

There are dozens of municipal utilities (called “municipal light plants” or MLPs) in Massachusetts that could, if they wanted to, install fiber networks under state law. Oddly, few have followed Holyoke’s lead. Or towns could create new MLPs just for the purpose of selling fiber access — Leverett, a town I profiled with Robyn Mohr a couple of years ago, has done just that.

But the towns need to learn from one another, and right now municipal leaders from places five miles apart don’t necessarily talk to one another. The state needs to help by eliminating the power of existing incumbents to control access to poles — a thorny ongoing problem in many states that Connecticut has solved — and by handing out planning grants to cities that are thinking things through. Regional initiatives that allow towns to take advantage of scale operations need to be encouraged. Although Massachusetts’s MLP statute makes the state special, plenty of places across the country that don’t have public utilities can benefit from what the Massachusetts towns learn along the way.

The extraordinary energy and interest last week’s Harvard Law School event attracted shows that a university can help catalyze and support these kinds of collaborations. As one wildly excited participant wrote to me: “I have a definite sense this event jump-started collaboration that will result in more fiber deployment in Massachusetts.” Here’s another sentiment: “The villagers were certainly ready to storm the castle by the end of the meeting!”

Look, it’s clear that Massachusetts is not South Korea. Just a handful of Massachusetts utilities have embraced the idea of fiber, and people in Western Massachusetts often travel far for a persistent (even if third-rate) data connection. South Korea invested heavily in communications infrastructure following its 1997 economic crisis, and is dedicated to ensuring world-class Internet access in every corner (high or low, wet or dry, urban or rural) of the country.

What’s brought this problem home for me, yet again, is the human experience of this difference. Sun’s life traveling back and forth between the two worlds, and her puzzlement at just how bad things are here for a data-hungry teenager — she can’t order pizza over her phone’s data connection from her dorm room, which is huge for her — reminds me that the U.S. is capable of enormous self-deception. We’re not planning for the future and we’re not in the lead. We need high-powered leadership at every level of government as well as university-catalyzed collaboration in order to move things along. Our politicians don’t understand how important this is — and a citizenry desensitized to inferior service can’t envision a better situation. So it takes a teenaged visitor from halfway around the world to open our eyes.

Thanks, Sun.

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