May 20, 2004 11:48 AM PDT

Korea's KT to have Earth's largest Wi-Fi network?

SEOUL, South Korea--Telecommunications provider KT plans to nearly double the number of its hot spots by the end of the year, a move that will likely give the company the largest commercial Wi-Fi network in the world.


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KT, which has already installed 12,000 hot spots in its home country, will have 23,000 in place by the end of 2004, Won-Sic Hahn, assistant vice president of the company's marketing planning group, said in an interview. About 375,000 customers currently subscribe to one of KT's various Nespot Wi-Fi plans.

For sheer scale, no other carrier comes close, said John Yunker, an independent wireless analyst, formerly at Pyramid Research. T-Mobile will have about 5,600 hot spots in North America at the end of 2004, Yunker said. Meanwhile, Cometa, which is winding down operations, has installed only a few hundred hot spots.

"KT will have more commercial hot spots than all of North America and slightly less than Europe," Yunker said. "Korea is always an exception. The nature of the density of the population makes coverage a whole different ball game."

Yunker earlier expected KT to have 18,000 hot spots by the end of the year.

The expansion is possible, largely because of the unusual circumstances surrounding KT and the domestic market in South Korea. The government funded the development of a countrywide broadband network in the late 1990s, and now, broadband penetration is about 71 percent. Once a government-owned monopoly, KT remains the largest carrier in the nation. As a result, the company has a customer base already acclimated to broadband.

"Entire city blocks tend to be hot spots," said Keith Waryas, research director at IDC. "It is probably the most advanced wireless market in the world."

Moreover, access is cheap. Broadband customers pay about $20 a month for an 8-megabit connection, which is both less expensive and faster than service in the United States. Wi-Fi can be added for as little as $9 a month, excluding taxes and home access point rental. The company will soon kick off a trial with a Japanese carrier for bicountry roaming.

"DSL and hot spot (service) is our most popular subscription model," Hahn said. The company also sells service with a handset that provides cellular for voice and Wi-Fi for data. In the first two weeks, the company signed up 2,000 customers.

Still, like Wi-Fi promoters in the United States, KT is finding it easier to attract consumers than corporations to wireless.

"The major portion of our customers are students in universities," Hahn said. "Businesses (subscribe)--but not as much."

While South Korea has become something of a testing ground for new wireless technologies, Hahn speculated that WiMax, an emerging wide-area wireless broadband technology touted as a "last mile" solution for bringing high-speed Net access into homes, won't be a hit there. Approximately a fourth of the nation's population lives in broadband-ready Seoul, and the bulk of the rest of the population lives in dense centers already largely hooked up to the Internet. Thus, there isn't a lot of use for a wireless last-mile link.

"It is good technology--but not for Korea," he said. --What's your take on this story? Visit News.com's feedback section.

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