Saturday, March 29, 2008

U.S. Digital Deficiency Jeopardizes "Super Power" Status

The title of this post is taken from the article just published by Shelley Palmer, and it pretty much says it all. He notes that children born in America this year will be the first true Digital Natives of the Information Age. They will grow up in a time when all of their telecommunications tools: video, voice and data are based completely upon digital technology. He then appropriately questions whether U.S. public policy contemplates a future constrained by the agendas of big business as opposed to positioning America to truly prosper in the global information economy. His article notes that " An average broadband connection in the United States is 1.5 Mbps down and 768 Kbps up -- about enough speed to watch a fairly low resolution streaming video or do some casual web surfing. Cable modems are faster and you can certainly purchase more connectivity, if you can afford it. But, on average, consumers are offered asymmetrical (faster download/slower upload) broadband connections and no one seems that unhappy about it. They should be. A child born in Korea or Singapore this year will be a digital native of their respective countries. They will grow up in a time when all of their telecommunications tools: video, voice and data are based completely upon digital technology. And they are very likely to start their journey through the Internet with 100 Mpbs symmetrical broadband connection." On my recent trip to the U.S., I experienced just how slow an 11 Mbps wireless connection to the internet from a motel room seems after being accustomed to fast connections here in Korea. Speed is vital to fully use and experience the modern internet. A lack of speed slows down convergence. The Broadcasting and Communications Commission (BCC) reported yesterday that Korean telecom firms (KT, LG-Dacom and Hannaro) are to invest around 1.57 trillion won ($15.8 billion) on Internet-protocol TV (IPTV) services this year. A large portion of that investment will reportedly be used in expanding and improving Internet networks in order to provide the speed necessary to guarantee high quality for real-time TV broadcasting on existing networks. Clearly, in this era of convergence and ubiquitous networks, South Korea seeks to maintain its status as an IT power. What is the U.S. stance?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Yellow Sand (황사) and Semiconductor Manufacturing

A recent Reuters report puts it well. "Dry weather and seasonal winds in China hurl millions of tonnes of sand at the Korean peninsula and Japan from late February through April or May, turning the skies to a jaundiced hue." The state-run Korea Environment Institute says the economic damage resulting from the haze, which occurred 11 days last year, amounts to 5.5 trillion won ($5.82 billion). ``The seasonal winds decrease productivity and increase product defect rates in some of the country's leading sectors,'' said Park Young-woo, the president of the Business Institute of Sustainable Development (BISD), a local group that promotes corporate sustainability. Hynix Semiconductor, the world's second-biggest memory chipmaker, says it operates an around-the-clock yellow dust alert system to inform employees of when dust levels go up. It has had to step up its filtration systems and make employees take longer air showers to make sure the dust does not contaminate its production lines and damage chips, made using technology that operates on a microscopic level. The sand over Korea can be seen quite clearly in the above photo from NASA. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Communication and National Reunification

Professor Johan Galtung, one of the world's towering intellects, with whose work I became acquainted in graduate school, was in Korea recently for a guest lecture at Dong-A University in Pusan. Early in his scholarly career he thought about and published on the topic of the international flow of news. Therefore, what follows in this post should not be surprising, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had come to Korea and addressed specifically the central political issue here. His guest lecture was entitled "Peace in the Global Era and Perspectives of the Unification on the Korean Peninsula" According to the author of the Left Flank blog, "Galtung quickly laid out his five-point lecture. He began with his distinction between negative and positive peace, and applied it the Korean peninsula. The goal of resolving the Korean armistice precedes political unification. After characterizing the North Korean state as "fundamentalist Confucian", Galtung then argued that unification only necessitated the free flow of people, goods and services, and information and ideas between the two Korean states, not the dissolution of ROK and DPRK into a single Korean state. Galtung buttressed this point by that of three other scenarios, conquest, collapse, or peaceful dissolution, the first two were violent, and the last has never occurred in human history. Galtung termed this "national reconciliation without the unification of two states". Galtung subsequently considered confederation as a starting political point, but unnecessary. " (My emphasis added.)
It is significant that Galtung mentions the free flow of five things: people, goods, services, information and ideas. One could hardly make a better argument that the communication and digital divide between North and South Korea are at the heart of national division today. Accordingly, the opening up of free communication is tantamount to national reunification. In fact, I would argue that if services include modern communications services, which in turn require modern fiber-optic and mobile networks, the five necessities Galtung mentions will result in Korean reunification. I would go further to speculate that fulfilling these necessities will be the beginning of the end of two states on the Korean peninsula. Anyone who has lived in Korea for more than a decade, as I have, will know that free flow of information on this peninsula, culturally speaking, leads directly and probably quickly (빨리빨리) to reunification.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Language and Culture as a Double-edged Sword

Without question, Korea has a strong culture and a strong language. Culture as an element of language or language as an element of culture probably characterizes the human situation worldwide, across a diverse range of cultures. But the relationship is particularly strong in Korea. Despite being located adjacent to China, which also has a long history and looms large on the world scene, Korea can rightfully boast that its alphabet, Hangeul (한글) is a crowning cultural achievement. It is perhaps the most scientific and phonetic alphabet in the world. I would venture that the majority of foreigners, when they first begin studying Korean, are struck by the genius of Hangeul. Today, there is a good argument to be made that the highly scientific and phonetic character of this alphabet facilitated the uptake of computers,mobile phones and other devices for electronic communication. However, as illustrated in the current national debate about English education in Korea, the Korean language and its Hangeul alphabet are also a source of nationalistic pride and can be viewed as limiting Korea's participation in the global internet. The most popular and dominant search engine in South Korea is Naver, a service that searches only Korean language (Hangeul) web sites and documents. The nation's immensely popular social networking site, Cyworld, failed in its initial attempt to penetrate markets outside of Korea. The new government of President Lee Myung Bak is facing opposition to its plan to improve English education, in part because some Koreans believe it will diminish appreciation of the Korean language. Hence, even with rapidly advancing 21st century technology, language remains exceedingly important. Also, it is a double-edged sword.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

North Korea's Moment for Mobile? Update

North Korea's plan to implement mobile telephone services is in the news again. According to Reuters, Orascom CEO Naguib Sawiris says that the service will "start in three major cities in the reclusive communist state and the company would then assess the impact." He said his company wants to see first how fast it will sell that and what kind of ARPUs (average revenue per user) can be generated. Sawiris said he was "astonished" how quickly the North Korean authorities wanted the service to start and he had high hopes for business in the country."We firmly believe that in the next three or four years we will be having a couple of million subscribers there and we will be seeing ARPUs in the range of $12 or $15 (a month)," he added. Given North Korea's recent record of attempting to control mobile communications, it will be interesting to follow Orascom's progress.

The Government's Role in ICT Development

Hello Readers! I just returned from a one week visit to the United States and am enjoying connecting to the internet at a reasonably fast speed. The motels in which we stayed for most of the past week offered wireless internet, but at speeds around 11 Mbps. That obviously placed some limits on my internet activity. Even checking e-mail was a painfully show process.
One of the first things I found upon my return was an excellent short article by Dr. Lim Young Mo of the Samsung Research Institute entitled "Six Promising Technologies Awaiting Government-Led Development." The title of this article underscores a point that I will explore in some detail in this blog. South Korea's telecommunications revolution of the 1980s was built upon key technology-development projects such as the TDX electronic switching system and the 4 Mb DRAM semiconductor. These projects, while involving the private sector, were government led, as were the decisions to initiate color television broadcasting and to privatize telecommunications services. As show in the chart from his article, government R&D investment led the way in Korea until about the turn of the century. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Korea's lively ICT sector and information society today owes its very existence to government-led technology development. The opening paragraph of Dr. Lim's article states that "A nation’s wealth has largely depended on its ability to develop innovative technologies, rather than on capital and labor. Therefore, many governments around the world have spearheaded technological development. The trend will likely intensify rather than ease as the connection between the national wealth and its technological development ability becomes stronger into the future; while R&D may be more effective if the private sector takes the lead in areas in which it excels, the government will need to continue to play a major role." The article goes on to discuss the process of selecting promising technologies and nominates six for government support in Korea. They are: Intelligent Infrastructure, Biopharmacy, Clean Energy, Unmanned Military, Nanomaterial and Cognitive Science. While the role of the private sector and venture capital in R&D is clearly increasing, the United States serves as a shining example that deregulation and the private sector alone cannot build a comprehensive nationwide broadband infrastructure. I commend Dr. Lim's article, but I would carry it one step further and suggest that the revolution in information technology underlies all six of the technology fields he nominates for government support. In other words, it is a basic or fundamental source of innovation. One final thought: government-led development does not necessarily mean government-dictated development. The Korean model deserves more attention for the sort of government-industry-academia cooperation that underly its telecommunications revolution.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Communicating Korea's Telecommunications Accomplishments

In the naming and renaming of government ministries recently, the Ministry of Information and Communication was eliminated and its functions dispersed in three directions. Some of its functions were place in a new ministry, initially given the English name of "Ministry of the Knowledge-based Economy," and quickly changed to "Ministry of Knowledge Economy." Other functions go to the new Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, while still others will go to the new Broadcasting and Communications Commission. So, as matters stand, the terms information and communication, along with their variants, no longer find their place in a Ministry name. The problem here is the public, instantly global message this sends. Put otherwise, it is the challenge of properly "branding" and communicating South Korea's considerable achievements in the field of communications, telecommunications and information society development. Internationally, two aspects of this problem are apparent:
  • As Suh Seung-Mo, the chairman of Korea IT SME & Venture Business Association,put it in a January 9, 2008 article in ZDNetKorea, "while competing foreign countries have been establishing IT related government organizations, Korea is likely to go back against this international trend. If so, it will discredit the Korean image of IT superpower that we have built."
  • The major international organizations in this field, notably the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have adopted the terminology of "information" and "communication" as well. A glance at the ITU website will see the priority given to the World Summit on the Information Society and to information and communications technology and terminology generally. The OECD website is also loaded with information that uses this terminology. Both organizations, along with other international bodies, are concerned with the digital divide, the internet economy, the growth of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the shaping of a global information society.

The risk Korea takes in eliminating a ministry that contained both "information" and "communication" in favor of the Knowledge Economy Ministry, is that it it may detract from the nation's efforts to help shape the ongoing international dialogue and detract from the branding of Korea's information society efforts, broadly speaking. Readers internationally will immediately wonder what the new Ministries do and what is the significance of their names. Finally, as readers of this blog will know, I have been making a case that developments in information and communications technology (ICT), represented by Moore's law, underpin the emerging "information age" or "information society." Just as communication is the fundamental human process, ICT is the fundamental source of development in such diverse fields as biology, nanotechnology, medical sciences, energy infrastructure and artificial intelligence, to name a few. The issue of fundamental or basic, versus applied research is important and will be addressed in future posts.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Korea's Growth Engines: Robotics

South Korea's robotics industry may be set to take off and could become an important growth engine for the nation's economy. On February 26, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy announced that a law intended to encourage the development and distribution of intelligent robots had passed the National Assembly. In a 2006 article, the New York Times noted that If all goes according to plan, robots will be in every South Korean household between 2015 and 2020. That is the prediction, at least, of the Ministry of Information and Communication, which has grouped more than 30 companies, as well as 1,000 scientists from universities and research institutes, under its wing. Some want to move even faster. In December of last year the Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) announced that it concluded a contract with International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in order to promote the international standardization of network robot. To do so, they plan to organize a specialist group and jointly hold workshops. Although South Korea's current market share in the robotics industry worldwide is small, it appears to have great potential. As noted, "Korea’s potential in the robot industry is among the best in the world, armed with highly developed associated industries, such as consumer electronics, automobiles and communication equipment. The country’s superior IT infrastructure and rapid acceptance of new technologies will help boost growth, too." More on this industry in future posts.

English Name Change: Ministry of Knowledge Economy

Apparently a number of people had the same reaction I did to the naming of a new Ministry as the Knowledge-based Economy Ministry. Today, according to Yonhap News, the government has changed the English names of several ministries, including this one. It has now been renamed the Ministry of Knowledge Economy. For purposes of this blog, I'll continue to refer to it as the Knowledge Economy Ministry since the other word order in English seems to beg for insertion of an article, thus calling it the "Ministry of the Knowledge Economy." As noted in my earlier entry, this is not intended as nitpicking about English wording, but rather to point to the larger picture. How will the new English names be received in other countries or in organizations that follow developments in Korea through English-language sources?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Language, Ministry Names and Korea's International Image, an official web portal of the Korean government, announced on Friday January 18 that President-elect Lee Myung-bak’s transition team had unveiled the English names of new ministries to be created as a result of his streamlining of government. According to a team spokesperson, "The transition team’s senior members finalized the official English titles of the new ministries after examining those of foreign countries." He said a new giant organization to be created through the merger of the Commerce, Industry and Energy Ministry with parts of the Information and Communication and Science and Technology ministries will be named the Ministry of Knowledge-based Economy (지식경제부 in Korean). Two observations about this announcement
  • 지식, in Korean, can be translated into English as knowledge, knowhow or information. In the U.S., Europe and other parts of the English-speaking world, the concepts of the information economy or information society (정보사회) are more widely used and understood than that of the "knowledge economy." Therefore, one might reasonably ask why it becomes the "Ministry of Knowledge-based Economy" rather than the "Information Economy Ministry."
  • Now that South Korea has one of the world's leading economies, any change in the English language, or other language names of its ministries and other key government organizations is like changing a brand name. It has huge value and affects the nation's relations with other countries and international organizations.

Korea's New "Knowledge-Based Economy Ministry"

South Korea's new government under President Lee Myung Bak has created a Knowledge-based Economy Ministry. The new ministry is a product of the previous Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Energy plus some parts from the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Information and Communication. In a related development the government is creating a new Broadcasting-Communications Commission, as an independent body directly under the President. It will consolidate elements of the old Broadcasting Commission with parts of the former Ministry of Information and Communications to regulate both broadcasting and telecommunications. The presidential transition team has promised "epoch regulatory reforms," claiming that Korea is 5-10 years behind other advanced countries in the convergence of broadcasting and telecommunications. The knowledge economy framework formed the basis of a recent case study of the Korean economy by the World Bank and several leading Korean research institutes. That study was publicly released at a June 2006 conference here in Seoul and published in book form last month. Both the Knowledge Economy framework and the reorganization of South Korea's government will be the subject of future posts here. Among other things, the list of recommended government web-sites in the right-hand navigation bar of this blog will change. Along with many others from industry, academia and government, I will try to interpret the significance of these changes.