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Next-Generation Smartphones Are Wickedly Fast—Why Does Korea Get Them First?

Qualcomm just released a report on the performance in Korea of its next-generation LTE platform. What is interesting is that for most parts of the world download speeds have been increasing steadily for some time but upload speeds pretty much still suck. This is a problem for those of us increasingly sharing pictures and videos. Well, the next generation of phones to use the Qualcomm Snapdragon X12 LTE modem will be able to upload a whopping 3x faster but only in Korea for now and only with the LG G5 (for now).

You can see a video of the difference here, but let’s talk about both the technology and why Korea consistently gets better tech performance than the US.

The Tech

This is kind of fascinating because the way it is increasing both download and upload speeds is by applying a number of interesting improvements to cell phone modems.

The first is carrier aggregation which allows the phone to communicate across two frequencies. This is kind of like your gaming PC that has two Ethernet ports to increase bandwidth (but without the limitation of the single link to your internet provider).

64-QAM modulation is the second technology and it basically jams more data into the same link. It isn’t compression—it just carries more data. Typical networks are limited to around 50 Mbps, but with 64-QAM you can get up to 150 Mbps.

Compression provides another 50 percent boost and suddenly you have some rather impressive bandwidth.

Why Korea?

What really annoys me about this kind of news is that if you look at the roll out of the phones already there are a number of devices that support this performance boost—one costing as little as $122. But most are only available in Asia because—of the first three networks to support the capability—two are in South Korea and one is in China (China Mobile—the major carrier in that region).

Now, both Korea and China desperately want to take the tech market away from the US and both governments aggressively push technology advancement and work with tech firms. For instance, I had one US tech firm explain to me the difference between working with the US Government and China. In the US they are mostly regulated and told what they can and can’t do. They feel as if they work for the government. In China the officials come over regularly and inquire what they can do to make the firm more successful—recognizing that the tax revenues and jobs the firms create are strategic assets for the country, not just extra work for them.

Europe and the US have similar issues, which is why you aren’t seeing technology advance as quickly there either.

I should add however that T-Mobile is shaking things up pretty heavily here in the US and I’ll bet it is the first carrier to adopt these new technologies as a result. Until then, though, if you want blazing smartphone performance you’ll have to take your new phone to Korea or China for the time being.

Wrapping Up

Looking back, the US led with trains, cars, oil, space exploration, and ships at one time. But the government in its desire to regulate everything, or tactically cut costs at the expense of revenues, pushed that leadership to Europe and Asia. It is interesting to note that unusual people like Jobs and Musk fought, and are fighting, to bring some of this leadership back but, typically, they are fighting not only their competitors but the government as well.

Examples are the recent attacks on Apple to unsecure their phones, the blocking of Tesla stores in much of the country, and the unwillingness to even consider Hyperloop for the unbuilt though already out of date bullet train in California.

Until that is fixed we can look longingly at the technologies that firms like Qualcomm are bringing out and envy users in Korea and China and wait for the day the heart of tech moves from the US to Asia. Now that is a sad way to end the week. (How much you want to bet that the first working Hyperloop train is in China? (Then again they may not need it.)

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