Monday, March 14, 2005

The future is South Korea (and Lafayette)

Here's a story which appears to be about America's falling rank in the high-tech industry and Korea's rise to dominance...and it is. But for us here in Lafayette it has other, more hopeful implications. We are poised to be for America what Korea has become for the world as whole. Read on.

The San Francisco Chronicle, perched out there on the west coast facing across the Pacific, has noticed that Korea is now the world's leader in technology and the development of digital products. Coming from the newspaper that's just down the way from America's Silicon Valley, that realization must have a particular sting. The title and subtitle of the story is particularly striking: The future is South Korea; Tech firms try out latest in world's most wired society.

It's all about big broadband. Korea has it. We don't.
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 always-on superfast Internet -- broadband -- both in your cell phone and in your home...

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...
Because broadband is available to all (very cheaply, though that crucial point is not covered in this article), Korea has become one giant test market for consumer appliances of all sorts. The future of the digital world is apparent, so think the marketers of the world's most advanced products, in Korea.
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.
The San Francisco Chronicle is one of the nation's top newspapers and its quality shows in a very thoughtful and well-informed discussion of why Korea has succeeded and the United States failed to get real broadband out to its citizens. That alone is worth clicking over to the Chronicle's website. But part of what we here in Lafayette can learn from that part of the discussion is that Korea has a very different history of technological innovation, that it has a very different culture, and that mix of technologies available there is substantially different from what will be available in the US because of those differing histories and cultures.

What American high-tech companies really need is an American "Korea." Korea is a valuable test ground only because it has adequate broadband to run the devices and programs of the future. On almost every other account, an American community with the size, diversity, cultural history, and technological mix that better match American markets would be a better test bed.

We don't often recognize just how unique Lafayette would be once we had municipal fiber. All the municipal installations of fiber are in smaller cities and the ones that come close to being our size -- for instance Provo, Utah -- are not nearly as diverse as Lafayette. Conical installations do not run into every disadvantaged neighborhood and they are more expensive to purchase. Low price and universal service yield relatively high "take rates," simulating a market demographic that will not be available in most locales decades. If what is wanted is the largest possible community with the highest take rate in every market segment, Lafayette will be an obvious choice for years to come.

Lafayette is positioned to be the place in the United States for testing the devices, software and marketing tactics of the future. That role is ours for the asking. Sound ambitious? It is. But the people of Lafayette have always been ambitious for our city. We've made bold decisions that grasped the possibilities of the moment with railroads, electricity, the interstate, and the oil center. Broadband is our generation's opportunity to build on that tradition.

Building a big broadband infrastructure was the key in the leap that has taken Korea from second- or third-world status to being the world leader in the commercial of advanced technologies. There is no reason, other than fear, not to grasp the possibility that big broadband could be the basis for dramatically moving Lafayette up in the ranking of American cities. We could easily become the place that gets everything new first—the place where success can make a product viable.

Breathing life into that possibility will mean real work. We'll need to make sure that our diversity becomes an asset by making every effort to close the digital divide. LUS will need to actively encourage innovative uses of big broadband and free us from internal bandwidth restrictions as much as possible. But most of all, we need fiber -- as quickly as possible.

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