While emphasising these facts at a recent talk in a World Bank seminar, Cheung Moon Cho of the Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion (KADO) pointed out that in the early 1980s, its telecom infrastructure was very poor, with a 100% dependency on imported equipments and less than 7% tele-density. In a sense, South Koreas position then was similar to Indias position in the early 1990s.
With a vision to become the 21st century IT Leader, South Korea, like India, carried out policy and regulatory reforms to introduce competition in telecom operations and to build strong telecom infrastructure. But there was a difference. It simultaneously took up the task of technology development. In the early 1990s, it took up the indigenous development of ADSL, digital TV and TFT-LCD technology. A few years later, it decided to back the development of CDMA mobile technology in Korea in order to become a leader in the field. When it found that its early partnership with Qualcomm was resulting in a significant royalty outflow from the country, it developed its own standard Wi-Bro, which would enable domestic companies like Samsung, LG and Hyundai to become wireless leaders in the world.
For Korea, telecom infrastructure and indigenous technology development were to be carried out concurrently, as it was recognised that this alone would make the nation strong. This is where the difference between Korea and India lies.
South Korea wants to emerge as a global leader in the 21st century and knows that leadership in technology is the key to this. It does not talk about technology-neutrality and did not hesitate in preventing the deployment of competing comparable technology (in this case, GSM) within the country. In fact, it continues to do so.
Promotion of ones own technology and defining national standards so that companies from other countries can sell only by aligning with domestic standards and with local companies is not an approach unique to Korea.
The US did not allow GSM to enter its country for years, and Europe did not allow the operation of early generation CDMA within its territory.
Japan defined its own standards and did not allow either technology into the country. China in turn has now defined TDS-CDMA as a standard to benefit Chinese companies.
Developed countries and countries with a strong belief in their own capabilities seem to know how to use technology and standards for national benefit in this manner.
India, on the other hand, while making great strides in opening up the economy and building its telecom infrastructure since the mid-nineties, has paid little attention to how it can become a global technology leader.
The country still talks of technology-neutrality and continues to import everything lock-stock and barrel. This is so despite the fact that India has a much better established technology development capability compared to Korea, when it first set upon its task. The country still seems to believe that it can at best be a junior partner of multinationals from the West, who will continue to remain the technology leaders in future.
It is not surprising that CNR Rao, technology advisor to the Prime Minister, recently commented at a workshop, Indians come nowhere near the Chinese and Koreans when it comes to patriotism.
Over the past year, India appears to have started looking at how to develop its own capabilities, instead of being a 100% importer of telecom products.
In fact, companies like BSNL are contemplating having a certain fixed percentage of their purchase from indigenous technology.
This late realisation is, however, a mere beginning and the country must have confidence in the capabilities of its scientists and technologists and do much more if it is to emerge as a technology leader of the future.
The writers are from TeNet Group, IIT-Madras