Seoul’s digital subway

Lindsay McComb / Posted 5.29.2012

Seoul's digital subway

My husband and I moved back to Seoul for another year (having previously resided in Seoul from 2009-2010). We'll be here until February 2013, making the most of it. I have the unique position to view Seoul through both the eyes of a foreigner and the eyes of a resident. I'm not just here on vacation, and I can read a little bit of Hangul. I live and work in Korea, but I'm not Korean. Here is part one of a three part series on living in the most wired country on earth, South Korea.

Seoul is hectic. It's organized chaos. Technology like no other. While some things seem backwards to me (like what can only be called an obsession with Internet Explorer), other things seem leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world. The Seoul Subway system is both.

"There is only one 'backward' thing about Seoul's subway computer system. It runs on Windows. Windows 2000."

Windows OS (마이크로소프트 윈도우)

There is only one "backward" thing about Seoul's subway computer system. It runs on Windows. Windows 2000.

Whatever it is, it's way out of date. Anachronistic, even.

Sometimes, the computer displays in the train cars (the displays that show the upcoming stops and commercials) lock up with a Windows error message, and I just shake my head and think, "Control + Alt + Delete."

Other than that minor malfunction, Seoul's trains are lightyears ahead of anything the United States has to offer.

I mean, Chicago's train cars are 60-years-old. Denver's light rail system, while new, has nowhere near the capacity or reach of Seoul's. While subways in American cities are notorious cellphone dead zones, Seoul's subway is completely covered, and entirely in 4G.

 "There is nary a nook or cranny in Seoul without digital coverage."

4G and WiFi (와이파이)

Seoul is mobile paradise, where wireless coverage is strong and ubiquitous. In fact, there are few, if any, places that don't have cell phone reception. There is nary a nook or cranny in Seoul without some sort of digital coverage.

Even while underground (and moving), 4G connections are clear and consistent.

In the Seoul subway there are wireless broadband or WiBro (known as WiMAX in the U.S.), antennas spread out at 300-  to 400-meter intervals in the tunnels and stations. And it's not just your run-of-the-mill data coverage, the connection is good enough to watch high-def YouTube videos without buffering, and I can download at speeds above 4 megabits per second.

In addition to 4G coverage, there are WiFi hotspots just about everywhere in Korea (concentrated mainly in Seoul). There is somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 hotspots in Korea's 38,623 square miles (picture an area about the size of Indiana). That's a little less than 2 hotspots per square mile.

There's also local televison reception everywhere, that can be picked up on all cell phones equipped with antennas. Even though there's wireless Internet coverage everywhere underground, more often than not, I see people watching TV, rather than browsing the web.A digital view terminal in Express Bus Terminal, Seoul.

Clockwise from the top right:
1. Touch-screen "Digital View" consul at Express Bus Terminal in Seoul.
2. Television on the train platform that broadcasts news, entertainment and train information.
3. Close-up of a weather report provided by the Digital View. 

Digital signage (디지털보기)

In almost every subway station (and major bus stations) are interactive kiosks, called "Digital View," provided by Daum, a major Korean search portal.

According to the service provider, there are "913 devices at 117 stations." The devices have two touch screens, a 42" main screen and a 17" supplementary screen. The main screen displays (in both English and Korean) a subway map, a satellite map service, nearby attractions as well as news and entertainment content (you can even buy movie tickets). The supplementary screen offers a VoIP service (voice over Internet Protocol). You can use your T-money card to pay for your calls on the telephone (T-money is a kind of electronic money - in card form - that can be used to ride the subway and busses).

In addition to the digital kiosks, there are a growing number of digital billboards (seen in subways, at bus stops, in malls and in pedestrian areas), advertisements and commercial displays, many of which are interactive and touch-screen capable.

Bonus: never have a dead cell phone (충전하다)

While traveling through the subway (connected like whoa), I often run down my cell phone battery browsing maps, checking Twitter, and occasionally watching Korean TV (all Korean phones have TV on them -- even flip phones). Never fear, most major Korean subway stations offer cell phone charging services. Simply head over to the information desk or look for "digital stations." Free of charge.

Though I've heard that sometimes they ask you for a quick thank you note.

Lindsay McComb

Writer and Content Specialist

Lindsay is Q Digital Studio’s writer and content specialist. She develops heady technical jargon into clear, coherent (and optimized) content. She has a knack for finding just the right words - but only after she’s had a nice cup of coffee (or two). She happily dives into the depths of the Internet on a daily basis. Lindsay has worked as a writer and editor the world over.