Showdown in Seoul for wireless internet

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Showdown in Seoul for wireless internet

Koreans turn on first WiMax and HSDPA services.

Korean telecoms operators have switched on mobile WiMax wireless internet services in the country's capital city of Seoul.

The commercial service is being seen as a first chance to compare the new wide area wireless internet access system with competing technologies.

KT Corporation and SK Telecom are both operating WiBro networks, a Korean version of the 802.16e mobile subsection of the WiMax standard. 

Seoul already has several commercial wireless internet services available via public Wi-Fi hotspots, but mobile WiMax offers numerous advantages.

It provides wireless data access speeds of several megabits per second, has a range of more than 1km, and can work inside vehicles moving as fast as 120km/h.

Initial WiBro services will focus on busy central areas of Seoul, university campuses, and major public transport routes around the city.

KT Corporation's basic service will cost from $16 per month for up to 300MB of downloaded data, plus an additional $0.07 per megabyte beyond that, according to an SEC financial filing.

Special introductory prices for the remainder of this year will be as low as $6 per month. KT Corporation will not provide a flat rate access plan, except during this introductory period.

The main competitor for WiBro and mobile WiMax is high speed downlink packet access (HSDPA), an enhancement of the existing WCDMA mobile phone technology which is already widely used in Korea.

HSDPA offers similar data speeds to WiBro, although costs for access are expected to be slightly higher.

SK Telecom is spending more than US$170m setting up its WiBro network this year, according to industry sources. KT Corporation claims to be spending around US$500m during the same period.

Both companies agreed to spend at least US$1b in order to obtain Korea's only two licences for WiBro, according to press reports.

"We will expand the WiBro service area across Seoul next year to metropolitan cities in 2008 and to the country's other major cities in 2009," a KT spokesman told the Korea Times.

SK Telecom, unlike KT, is also rolling out an HSDPA service. The mobile service operator is currently putting more emphasis on HSDPA because it builds on its existing mobile infrastructure, industry analysts believe.

"SK Telecom intends to push the recently launched WCDMA-HSDPA as its next-generation flagship service, while differentiating WiBro as a specialised high-speed data service," said Hyundai Securities analyst Shihoon Lee.

"SK Telecom's business strategy may change depending on KT Corporation's strategy and customer response, but SK Telecom's view of WiBro for now calls for conservative marketing."

The only way to access the Korean WiBro services is via a PC card costing between US$170 and US$300. This can be plugged into notebook PCs.

Other access methods, including via PDAs and smartphones, will be on the market during the next few months, manufacturers say.
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