Copyright 2005 Scripps Howard, Inc.

Scripps Howard News Service

March 16, 2005, Wednesday 01:43 PM Eastern Time

San Francisco Chronicle

Pick up your mobile phone and watch your favorite TV show. At home, on your computer, download a feature-length movie in no time at all.

If you live in South Korea, it is an everyday reality to have superfast Internet - broadband - both in your cell phone and in your home.

South Korea is the most wired country on the planet. Some South Koreans can get up to 20 megabits of data per second - breakneck speed by today's standards. Americans are lucky if they get 4 Mbps.

While South Korea leads in the rollout of broadband, the United States - supposedly the world's technology leader - comes in no better than No. 13, according to experts. About 76 percent of households have broadband in South Korea. The figure is 30 percent in the United States.

Broadband widens the digital data pipeline to allow complicated files, including pictures, graphics and video, to be downloaded at near-instant speed. Experts consider the development of broadband networks to be the single most important step for expanding digital technology and bringing cutting-edge computer applications directly into people's lives.

While broadband is usually associated with computers, wireless phones are also an important part of the picture. Here the situation is similar to computers. Some 75 percent of South Koreans have a mobile phone, compared with 60 percent of Americans. And South Koreans generally do more and cooler things with their phones.

"There is no point in Korea where you can stand without receiving a signal," said Joy King, director of industry marketing at Hewlett-Packard. "In the U.S., we are still at the 'can-you-hear-me-now' level. When Europe and Asia are moving to multimedia text messaging, the U.S. has just started text messages. The U.S. is a Third World country in this aspect."

Silicon Valley used to be hailed as the world's high-tech capital. Now many consider South Korea the king.

"From my perspective, Silicon Valley does not have that role. The lead is in Asia, in Korea and Japan, no question," King said.

South Korea has managed to leapfrog the United States in both broadband and mobile phone use thanks to a population density that makes connectivity easier and government policies that promote development. South Korea also has a culture where people are crazy about playing online games and don't go home after work. Instead, they go to dinner, to karaoke or to a bar - all the while using their mobile phones.

U.S. technology leaders are sounding the alarm that the nation is falling dangerously behind in broad areas of digital innovation, including broadband.

Last week, technology executives affiliated with the lobbying group TechNet traveled to Washington to press for government policies that would promote broadband development.

The U.S. information superhighway has turned into a "bumpy, two-lane country road" compared with broadband development in other countries, the group said.

As Silicon Valley's biggest corporations complain about the relative backward state of broadband in this country, they are rushing to South Korea to see if their products pass muster with some of the world's most demanding technology customers.

Silicon Valley companies view South Korea as a sort of time machine when testing broadband applications, a place where they can get a glimpse of what Americans will use in the future.

Samsung, the giant South Korean electronics company, tests its new products in Korea first for six to eight months. "It collects feedback from customers (to) remodel and fix things before introducing the products worldwide," said Jong Kap Kim, executive director of South Korea's iPark Silicon Valley. "And several U.S. companies are doing the same."

Microsoft brought MSN Mobile, which enables instant messaging on mobile phones, to South Korea two years ago. It introduced the service in the United States six months later.

"It's still much more popular in Korea," said Brooke Richardson, MSN lead product manager. "It's not only that the U.S. is not so advanced in broadband. Mobile phone usage is not so high here either. MSN is bridging the two worlds of PCs and mobile phones, and Korea has that connectivity. We have incubated some of our stuff in Korea, like mobile instant messaging and mobile e-mail. We have also launched services there that the rest of the world was not ready for."

For example, with MSN Messenger, Koreans use avatars, a cartoon that represents them online. When your friends see your avatar, they know you're online and instant messaging.

"Basically, customers in Korea buy a virtual person. For a small fee, they can buy clothes, shoes and purses for it," Richardson said.