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The Politics of WiFi in Korea

Posted: May 24th, 2010, by Yunho Chung

Amongst the 3W mobile networks available in Korea - WCDMA, WiBro, and WiFi - WiFi had not been receiving much attention from the mobile business circles. However, since the inception of iPhone and the following smartphones, WiFi has become the critical resource of competitive advantage for mobile network operators to serve their smartphone users. In particular, the WiFi became one of the most conflictual policy issues for Korea’s local government election coming up early this June. Concerned with earning the favor and votes of the public, politicians have been insisting on the free use of WiFi in public places. However, each related stakeholder clearly has different perspective on this matter.

Policy makers are insisting on making WiFi a free public network to improve the benefits of public interests. They asserted that free mobile network infrastructure is necessary to boost the use of smartphones. Further regarding the investment costs for the policy makers, WiFi has the most appropriate budget option compared with other W networks.

The industry on the other hand showed different reactions. KT, who has already made substantial investments on WiFi coverage throughout the nation, strictly disagreed with the free use of WiFi. KT strongly asserted that it will discourage investment on mobile network from private sectors and also that WiFi has great deal of security issues, which should be dealt by expert operators rather than local government. They instead suggested that the vitalization of smartphone usage can be achieved through inexpensive price plans. However, SKT conversely insisted that local government should cooperate with telcos in its use within certain public areas and facilities, like the case with street lights, in order to avoid overlapping investments.

Lastly, the KCC (Korea Communication Committee) emphasized their policy principle that government’s role should lie in promoting, rather than creating, an efficient market. In other words, WiFi should be built based on market competition rather than by local government’s sole initiative. But they partially accepted the open use of WiFi network in cases with public benefits such as education or accident prevention. 

Telecommunication infrastructure should serve to benefit the public by its nature. However, by over-emphasizing on public benefits, the private sector will likely lose their motivations for making investment. WiFi will play a critical role for the future mobile internet ecosystem, especially concerning the spread of smart devices like smartphones. Hence, the policy on WiFi should not be decided based on politicians’ own interests. Rather, it should be by balancing between market mechanism and public benefits, and vigorously evaluated the feasibility of execution for each action.  

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