Cell Phone Frenzy Rings True

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Cell Phone Frenzy Rings True

The Wireless Wonder is Not Just for Talking on the Go Anymore.

From Beethoven's 5th to the latest Korean top ten tunes to the simple sound of humming birds, they ring in a multitude of digital sounds. And they ring just about anywhere, anytime, true to their promise of around-the-clock and on-the-spot connectivity.

Korea can no longer be described as the Hermit Kingdom, if the ubiquitous ringing and chiming of mobile phones is any indicator of being in touch with the world. In a country where people download personalized melodies from the Internet in an attempt to distinguish the ringing on their mobile phones, the gadget that lets you do the talking while walking has overtaken the plain old fixed line telephones.

At 54 percent mobile penetration rate, according to the latest figures released by the Ministry of Information and Communication, Korea ranks among the world's top mobile phone-user countries.

So what are people doing with their mobile phones? Other than chatting away with apparent disregard for the privacy of the conversation or the discomfort suffered by people forced by circumstance into hearing distance of these loud conversations, they are also punching away at the keypads on their handsets.

Mobile Internet, displaying perhaps the highest level of sophistication among wireless communications palm-sized gadgets, is fast taking hold in Korea.

Mobile Internet's ability to offer online games has quickly grabbed the imagination of netizens. Although it offers many other convenient services, such as e-mail, PIM (personal information management), news, weather and stock quotes as well as location services using the global positioning system (GPS), the number of users of these features pales in comparison to those who log on for entertainment.

"Online games account for about 60 percent of all ez-I, our mobile Internet service," said Howard Yun, public relations manager at LG TeleCom. The company launched its commercial mobile Internet service last August and currently offers 50 different online games. Although the graphics are rudimentary in comparison to their fixed-line cousins, games are continuously updated and changed, an undeniable attraction for gamers who demand the very latest.

At the moment, mobile network games that support multiple players are red-hot: "Cosmo Nova, our most popular network game, had 50 million page-views in the first three months, and more than 300 people are logging on to play the game everyday," said Yun.

The short messaging service (SMS) has already become a cheap and widely used way of getting a message across instantly.

At Korea Telecom M.Com, where people in their teens and twenties make up the bulk of subscribers, the most popular calling plan is called "Teen Teen Plan," which offers 100 minutes of free SMS and 90 minutes of talk-time for a monthly fee of 18,000 won.

SMS is not the exclusive terrain of teenagers shooting messages back and forth to pass away the time, although youngsters with nimble fingers are at an advantage. "My friends and I use SMS when we need to get in touch but can't talk on the phone. At the office, for example, where I am cautious about getting calls on my mobile, I prefer getting text messages," said a 29-year-old female office worker.

To help increase manual dexterity, a local venture firm has even developed a keypad specifically for mobile phones that simplifies punching in Hangul, the Korean alphabet. The innovative keyboard can "double typing speed while reducing typing errors by 40 percent," claimed Chang Choong-hyup, president of Worldman Corp., the firm which developed the system.

What has driven the remarkable growth of the mobile market some four years since the first cellular phone service was launched?

First, there were the cheap mobile phones. Although the practice has been banned since last June, wireless service providers, trying to move the market, offered handset subsidies when users signed up for service, making them practically give-aways. That virtually eliminated the entry barrier for consumers, allowing even school-age youngsters to get their hands on mobile phones.

Then there is the matter of low tariffs. Wireless service providers offer different calling plans. A basic plan, however, offers the steeply discounted rate of 8 won per 10 seconds during evening hours. This adds up to as little as 13,500 won per month, with airtime during daytime hours costing 40 won per 10 seconds.

But none of this would matter much if people were not willing or ready to embrace these new services and technologies. Their eagerness to adopt new things is evident in consumers' readiness to abandon their old handsets for the latest model. When handset subsidies were still available, mobile phone users ditched their phones in quest of new ones every few months. "A lot of phones that are in good working order have been discarded this way," said an official at LG Electronics, a major mobile phone manufacturer.

In fact, so many mobile phones were being put out of commission that the government stepped in to ban all handset subsidies. Since mobile phones rely heavily on imported parts, the excessive domestic demand for handsets was blamed for eating into the country's trade surplus figures.

However, Koreans' appetite for new gadgets and services will be put to the test again at the end of the year when mobile phones that support VOD (video-on-demand) and AOL (audio-on-demand) services become widely available. Known as cdma2000 1x, this latest development in wireless phone technology enables transmission of data at speeds of up to 144Kbps, about 2 to 10 times faster than existing services, allowing for exchange of multimedia data.

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