Thursday, January 31, 2008

Information Age Indices--Where Does Korea Stand?

This month another index has been announced, the purpose of which is to measure progress toward the information society. The development of this index, called the "Connectivity Scorecard," was funded by Nokia-Siemens Networks and its development was led by Professor Leonard Waverman of the London Business School. The developers took as two points of reference, the ITU's Digital Opportunity Index (DOI) and the Economist's E-readiness index. A basic premise of the new index is that the DOI and E-readiness indices stress only infrastructure and usage and slight "the skills and complementarities required to drive communications networks as an engine of growth. That is, it is “smart” usage which helps make Connectivity a driver of productivity gains and hence economic growth." (See The Connectivity Scorecard.) What caught my eye was the statement in this report that "Korea, a star performer on other indexes, finishes 10th largely because very high performance in infrastructure is not matched by correspondingly high scores on usage measures, especially by businesses." At first glance, this statement did not seem to mesh with my understanding of what is going on here in South Korea. To be blunt, it makes me wonder about the usage measures employed in The Connectivity Scorecard and whether they treat countries like Korea fairly, given that the majority of network activity here is carried out in the Korean language (한글 하고 아국마로). The development of international indices to measure the degree to which countries are networked, the extent to which these networks are used, and how that relates to economic, political and social development is no doubt important. However, it seems strange that South Korea would suddenly drop in the rankings with this new index. Rest assured that, as time permits, I will return to this topic and compare the major international indices in some detail.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Korea is Not the "Most Wired" Country in the World

One might be forgiven for believing that Korea is the most wired nation on earth. The most heavily networked nation, very possibly, but not the most wired. This is so for several obvious reasons.
  • Merriam Webster online and most other dictionaries define wire as having a metallic component, like the copper phone wires that if counted or weighed would make the US the world's most "wired" country.
  • Even if the newer fiber optic cables are counted as "wires" designation of the most wired nation in the world ignores the broad trend in recent years toward "cutting the cord," i.e. the introduction of mobile networks. South Korea is a world leader in mobile technology deployment and use.
  • "most wired" is a vague term that makes a nice headline, but in fact is used by different sources in different ways to confuse matters. Anyone who doubts this should do a quick Google search on "most wired countries" (without the quotes). This will show that among the measures of being "wired" are: (1) the information society index, IDC's annual study which includes fifteen variables, (2) broadband users, use per capita, or hours of use per week, (3) polling data about use in the last month, (4) broadband access as in percentage of households connected, (5) the digital access index or digital opportunity index (DOI) and so forth.

Although the "wired" terminology has a comforting, anachronistic feel to it, we probably need to get beyond it to be clear about measures of broadband access or infrastructure versus usage. These two types of measures, along with others such as education, go into indices such as the Digital Opportunity Index. Such measures are going to be important to track various "digital divides" and progress in bridging them.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Hana Linux and Korean Reunification

The recent announcement coming out of a conference in China that North and South Korea would work together on Linux software has already generated a spate of hyperbolic commentary on the web. Training centers for Linux professionals will be developed at Yenben and Dandung in China, and at Pyongyang, Kaesong and Hoichun in North Korea, according to reports. To place this announcement in some sort of perspective, it is helpful to remember the following:
  • Windows is still dominant in the South Korean market, despite some recent announcements. When the Ministry of Information and Communication announced in early 2006 that it would designate a "Linux City" and a "Linux University" only 1 percent of the nation's computers were running Linux (lower than the global median of 3 percent). Near the end of 2006 Kwangju was designated as an open-source city, in a project running from 2006-2010, which will bear watching.
  • North Korea, despite having few connections to the internet and virtually no modern mobile telecommunication networks, reportedly has made some progress in software development. The government in the North may well view joint software development, including Linux, as a non-controversial way to start cooperation with colleagues from the South.
  • Especially in the Korean context, announcement of a project and actual implementation can be two very different things.
  • Will the jointly developed Linux be solely for the use of Koreans with only the Korean market in view, or will the developers envisage Korea's role in the global information economy?

South Korea has unquestionably made progress in the development of Linux, developing its own version called Buyeo, for use in Seoul schools. Also, the project to make Kwangju an open source city is underway. These developments all merit attention, as do joint South-North efforts on Linux. More to come on this topic.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Education, Age and Broadband Use in Korea

All the evidence suggests that young people in Korea, and those who are highly educated, are the most active participants in the information revolution, at least if you measure that by levels of broadband usage. The data for education are show in the figure above (just click on the figure to see a full-size image of it). It shows clearly that levels of internet usage increase with education. These data emphasize the potential, even in the most networked society on earth, for a digital divide between those who have little formal education and those that are highly educated. Age also has a strong relationship to internet usage, as shown in the figure below from the same OECD report. These two findings, that age and education are highly related to internet usage, are reproduced as other countries adapt to the internet era, and require elaboration based on other factors. However, they are clearly two major aspects of the information society, or the knowledge economy, evolving here.

Broadband Internet in South Korea

Broadband internet penetration, as measured by the OECD, the ITU and other organizations, indicates the number of internet subscriptions per 100 population. As indicated by the chart in my previous post, South Korea led the world by this measure for the first few years of the new century. It also led, and continues to lead, by another important measure--the percentage of households connected to broadband internet. As of September 2007, 90.1% of South Korean households had broadband connections, the highest percentage in the world. As shown in the chart above, other countries are catching up, led by several of the smaller nations of Scandinavia and Europe. South Korea's high household access to the internet is boosted by the extremely high concentration of its population in Seoul and a few other large cities. Beyond that, even in smaller towns a large portion of the population resides in the large apartment complexes that have, for some years now, all been wired for 100 Mbps internet connections. With such a high level of household connections to fast internet service, it stands to reason that usage levels will increase and that seems to be the case, as shown in the second graphic below. Over half of the South Korean population now uses the internet more than ten hours per week.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Information Highways: Korea's Broadband Networks

Anyone with an interest in Korea's telecommunications development and its current status as a world-leader in broadband infrastructure, will want to consult the OECD's broadband portal. This portal makes available data for all of the OECD countries and a variety of studies that help to make sense of the information revolution around the world. South Korea has been an active participant in these new OECD studies.
In an earlier post, I commented on the tendency of mainstream media reports to lag or misrepresent actual developments in South Korea. The OECD data on broadband internet penetration from 2001 through mid-2007 help us to understand why. In terms of this particular measure, South Korea was number one in the world until 2005, when some small Scandinavian and European countries caught up. The "suddenness" of South Korea's rise as a broadband internet power is probably what threw the mainstream media off course. It simply didn't fit within the story line used to report about that nattion.
There is much more information to digest on the OECD broadband portal, quite a bit of which relates to the South Korean experience. I plan to comment on it in future posts.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

검색--Language, Culture and Web Searching in Korea--the flip side

There is another whole side or perspective to the role that language plays in media, including the internet. It prevents the media, even including Google, with its Google News service, from adequately covering and understanding what is happening in South Korea's information society. The reporting and coverage patterns of mainstream Western media, especially U.S. television news, have been a longstanding interest of mine. (See Television's Window on the World and The Internet and Foreign Policy. Despite the increased bandwidth and presumably the increased amount of information available via the internet, people still tend to surf the web in their own native language and the sources available in that language. Likewise, the major international media still operate largely in English, rather than the languages of countries on which they report. This means that the news reporting of developments in a country like South Korea lags seriously behind what is actually occurring in the country. It may be that the CNN or other network correspondent in Seoul is completely bilingual in Korean and English, but her reports filter up through editors that function only in English. This same pattern occurs in the business or trade press. If reporting of Korea's information revolution and its significance to the nation, the region and the world is inadequate what can be done? The only solution that comes to mind is a significant and sustained investment in the study of difficult foreign languages like Korean. More on this and I encourage your reactions.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

검색--Language, Culture and Web Searching in Korea

Google is far and away the most popular web search tool in much of the world, but not in Korea. The market leader and most widely-used search engine here is Naver. Launched in June of 1999 and using its own proprietary search engine, reportedly commands nearly 80 percent of the search market in South Korea. Google, despite offering a Korean-language interface, still reportedly controls less than five percent of the market. How can this be? The answer is that Naver is a 100 percent Korean-language solution to search. A "search" on Naver does not search non-Korean language material available on the web. While the Naver database is growing and answering search queries by Koreans in their own language, its current ranking as the fifth largest search portal in the world is simply a matter of the number of Koreans using the portal. Here a couple of critical points deserve to be made. First, Koreans who wish to search the entire internet need to turn to another search utility, such as Google or Yahoo. For example, a Korean student considering study abroad would be well-advised to use these more globally-oriented search engines. Second, because of the Korean-language bias of the Naver search engine, there is a built in limit to its penetration of the internet. It will ultimately only serve those who understand the Korean language. Naver is a business success in Korea and it serves Koreans around the globe. But it has its limits. It also offers a splendid example of how language and culture place boundaries on human communication in this new "information age." More on this topic in future posts.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Korea's DMZ as Digital Divide -- The Satellite Photos

The topic of Korea's digital divide obviously attracts interest. It is the single most widely read post on this new blog. A bit of research on the web indicates that the existence of iconic satellite photographs of the Korean peninsula at night have contributed to the interest. These have indeed been widely circulated on the internet and have received some attention in the business and mainstream press. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used such an image an October 11, 2006 news briefing following North Korea's nuclear test. The image used during his briefing shows not only the well-lit urban concentrations in South Korea, but also the bright lights of the squid-fishing boats off the east coast of the country.
There are many versions of the satellite photos and some of the most interesting are those provided by Google Earth. For example, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology has put together a world map of Earth Lights on Google Maps. You can also use an interesting overlay available within Google Earth to zoom in on the Korean peninsula at night. What all of these views have in common is that North Korea, with the exception of Pyongyang, is literally "in the dark." Not surprisingly, these images from space have come to symbolize the lack of modern communication networks in North Korea, compared with the south. A view of the Korean peninsula representing the density of either fiber optic networks or mobile telecommunications networks would approximate what the satellites now capture at night.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Korea Posts Large Digital Electronics Trade Surplus in 2007

The news is out. According to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy (MOCIE), Korea’s trade surplus in the digital electronics sector reached a record $57.1 billion in 2007, fueled by strong global demand for display panels and semiconductors. Total exports of digital electronics rose 8.9 percent year-on-year to $124.9 billion, while imports gained 10.1 percent to $67.8 billion. Exports of liquid-crystal display panels rose 36.4 percent over 2006. According to the Ministry Korea’s total exports rose 14.2% year-on-year to USD $371.8 billion in 2007. Digital electronics accounted for $124.9 billion or 33.6 percent South Korea's total exports. More evidence, if any were needed, that information and communication technology is the primary growth engine of Korea's economy today. This is especially true since exports of digital electronics do not factor in their influence on other leading export sectors such as automobiles, steel, general machinery or shipbuilding.