This afternoon, I arrived in Seoul, South Korea, for a short side-trip and break from Shanghai. I’ve never been to South Korea before, but its Internet reputation precedes it. The country has long been a leader in mobile Internet in particular, with fast wireless connectivity powering hyper-mobile user habits, such as watching broadband video on handsets, which has been mainstream here since before the fall of the Joseon Dynasty.

South Korea continues to lead the world in mobile advances, with 7 million people – about 14 percent of the population – using 4G-enabled LTE smartphones. That figure is forecast to jump to 30 percent within a matter of months. In the US, less than 7 percent of smartphones are LTE-capabale.

I have already been basking the glory of 4G, and consuming media through a smartphone like a local. Well, a local who likes YouTube and Google Maps. But it’s not because I’m digging deep into my pockets to pay huge fees for global roaming on my iPhone. Instead, I rented an LG smartphone as soon as I stepped off the plane. It’s cheap. For about $6 a day, I get unlimited data, bargain local calls, and a beautiful piece of hardware to slip into my pocket. At least two phone companies competed to offer their services to me at the airport, and, unlike car rentals in the US, there was no nasty upselling or pressure to convert to a more expensive plan.

That competition reflects a wider push in the market at large towards a 4G future. While about 30 million smartphone users are still using 3G, industry watchers estimate that LTE will become dominant before the year’s end. The main operators – SK Telecom, KT, and LG Uplus – are pouring money into marketing to convert users, offering large subsidies to LTE subscribers while cutting back on subsidies for other devices.

Away from mobile, South Koreans already have the world’s fastest Internet connections, and, having just emerged from the behind the brutal sluggishness of a VPN in China, boy am I noticing the difference. But “best in the world” is apparently not good enough for the government, which has announced plans to connect every home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second by the end of this year. That, says the New York Times, is more than 200 times as fast as the average household setup in the US.

The 28-year-old engineer charged with overseeing the expansion plan told the newspaper that the country is preparing for the proliferation of 3D TV, ultra-high-definition TV (which was on display even in the Immigration line at the airport), videoconferencing, and IP TV, among other technologies.

I’ll be here until Thursday, digging into the startup ecosystem, and talking to people involved with gaming, social networking, and other key areas of Korea’s Internet industry. Though my time here is brief, I’d welcome any suggestions of story ideas to explore, or people to meet. Hit me up at hamish at pandodaily dot com and put “Korea!” in the subject line. Please also include a picture of a small dog.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an infographic of indeterminate origin, which provides a quick overview of Korea’s Internet.

Annyeong for now, folks. Stay tuned for more from the Internetland of the future.

[Picture via Phys.org]