South Korea's capital city is already the best connected in the world, so it's not surprising that the local government has announced a $44 million project to bring free Wi-Fi Internet access to every outdoor space and street corner city-wide. Surprising, no. But jealousy-inducing? Oh my, yes.
All buses, taxis, and subway trains will be covered, too. Korea Telecom (KT) already had Seoul's subway lines covered with WiBro, its nationwide commercial wireless broadband service.
Was that good enough? Not in Seoul.
KT had rolled out that leg of its service back in 2004 and put it into service in 2007. Before North American telecoms got serious about 3G, before much smaller municipal Wi-Fi projects stateside collapsed under their own weight, South Koreans were already living the IEEE 802.16e mobile WiMAX dream.
South Korea's wireless penetration rates and download speeds make most of the U.S.'s cabled broadband look like an anachronistic joke. (Like when your grandmother tells a long, meandering story that's only funny because she's so old and adorable.)
Seoul is already the long-reigning hotspot champ. You can already get wireless almost everywhere. Their version of the last mile problem is getting Internet signal outside. Actually, Seoul's problem (such as it is) illustrates both the genius and the frustrations of municipal wireless plans worldwide.
They boil down to this: City and regional governments don't want to blanket their jurisdiction in Wi-Fi for the benefit of their citizens. At least not directly. They need data coverage for government workers: police, fire, emergency responders, city inspectors, parking meter readers, and so forth.
Putting Wi-Fi everywhere a city worker might go means putting Wi-Fi everywhere in a city. That's expensive. Metropolitan and regional coverage is even more expensive. Nor do these cities or regions themselves typically have the expertise to do it.
Enter the service providers. They agree to wire up the city and run the service on the cheap so long as the city can help give them paid private subscribers on top of the government users. This sounds like a win for everybody.
But then the long-delayed pain sets in. It turns out that citizens (who are now paid subscribers to a public/private service) want Internet access in strange, exotic places, like their homes. Government workers actually don't want Wi-Fi inside your house as much as they want it on your street. They're not going to hang out and watch a movie. Nor would you like them to.
The conflict between the needs of the two user groups means that either one group or the other is unhappy until the ISP runs a lot more string and puts up a lot more cans than it thought it would have to. Meanwhile, big telecoms (at least the ones cut out of the deal) are doing everything they can to throw up obstacles to public wireless, from lobbying the government to whispering (or shouting) about poor service quality.
Sometimes projects go broke; sometimes they fall apart entirely or have to be saved or taken over by the city, like in Philadelphia. Often, there's a big gap between the initial vision of what a public wireless network could be and what it winds up becoming.
These, however, are birth pangs. They are known bugs, to borrow some jargon from software development. Because when it works, it works. It works for all of the reasons everyone wanted to start the thing in the first place: because it's arguably only at the scale of a metropolitan public works project that you really can deliver the smooth, broad, deep data coverage that we all say and believe we want—not just for those who can put down a mint, not just in place of convenience X, Y, and Z, but everywhere, and for everyone, for the public good.
It's worth remembering that even in South Korea, our wireless infrastructure is still in beta.
[Image: Flickr user GeraldoSotelo]