Tracing 50 Years of Korea’s Electronics Industry Development

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The Birth of Telecommunication
Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

The Birth of Telecommunication

The seventh installment in a twelve-part series - Ed.

History of TDX Today we live in a world that provides a lot of comfortable electronics for everyday life. For example, the electronic phone and the mobile phones provide us with a lot of conveniences. However, do we know the origin of the electronic phone and the mobile phone? Also, do we realize the significance of the electronic phone and the mobile phone? In order to talk about the history of electronics in Korea, we must first of all discuss the Electronic Switching System which is considered one of the most technological feats developed in Korea.

After the Mechanical Telephone Exchanger was introduced, the world's first Electronic Switching System (E-10) was installed in 1970 in France. Next came some different types of Electronic Switching Systems, including No.4 ESS which was introduced and installed in the US and Canada. This was the start of the Electronic Switching System for our society.

In 1976, with the facts from Korean scientists, government and business leaders started to consider the needs for development of Korea's Electronic Switching System. Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) was founded in 1977 after which the ETRI began its first step in setting up the planning stages of an electronic exchanger and finally initializing serious process for its research and development.

In 1986, Korea’s first indigenous Electronic Switching System, TDX-1 was put into a commercial services in Songjeong-ri, Gyeonggi-do with 362 subscribers. An opportunity to level up the electronics technology in Korean industries was knocking at the door and if successful Korea would develop into becoming an advanced country in communications and electronic industries as well as internet industry.

In 1986, the following development project of a full scale Electronic Switching System TDX-10 was completed in 1989. This exchange became later the basis of following CDMA mobile communication system.

The Miracle in Songjeong-ri

Dr. Yang Seung-taik, former Minister of Information and Communication Ministry and Invited Researcher of ETRI

Dr. Yang Seung-taik, former Minister of Information and Communication Ministry and Invited Researcher of ETRI

On December 23 of 2009, Korea IT Times sat down with Dr. Yang Seung-taik, former Minister of Information and Communication Ministry and Invited Researcher of ETRI to trace back the 50 years of Korea's electronic industry. He we very pleased to explain and share his experiences while heading Time Division Exchange Development Team (TDX1).

South Korea is the fourth largest economy in Asia and the 15th largest in the world. The transformation into a developed country happened between 1960 and 1980 and was named "The Miracle on the Han River". These 30 years of Korean technology infrastructure did not develop naturally as it did in more advanced countries. With the persistence and determination by one man and his R&D team they made a significant impact for "The Miracle on the Han River".

During the 1970s the government controlled the phone business which meant that if an individual wanted a telephone service the applicant had to go through the government. Subscribers had two choices to purchase a phone - a white phone or a blue phone. The white phone allowed the subscriber to resell the number to anyone, to trade it or if the company moved the subscriber was able to take it to the new location. The price of a white phone was the same as a 30 pyeong apartment in Apgujung. The blue phone could not be traded or resold and it had to stay at the subscriber's location.

Korea's 1980's emphasized industrial technology development and the early 1980's found many foreign companies, such as Ericson and AT&T wanting to sell their Electronic Switching System (ESS) to Korea. ESS is used in telecommunications as an exchange based on the principles of time-division of digitized analog signals. Dr. Yang Seung-taik explained ESS as time-division is like western food, the food comes one at a time and space-division is like Korean food, all the food at one time. "When Ericsson and AT&T came with their ESS's they emphasized that they spent more than US$1 billion to develop their ESS system, so they claimed," stated Mr. Dr. Yang Seung-taik, "however, Korea refused their offer and we were funded for the TDX1 by the Korean government. Although it was only US$40 million, it was the largest funding at the time in Korea. No one believed that Dr. Yang Seung-taik and his R&D team could succeed developing the TDX1.

With no money and less knowledge in technology, Dr. Yang and his team took the daunting task head-on and to everyone's dismay they succeeded. Within five years they had built and tested the TDX1. Dr. Yang Seung-taik re-enforced the fact this was the stepping stone for all future projects because by succeeding they would be able to get more funding for future R&D projects. This could be the start of a legacy. Worst case scenario if they failed - well thanks goodness that didn't happen. He called the cycle "sustainable process" meaning that first is technology-product-industry-sell once you get positive feedback, repeat. In this cycle we have the telephone-the more subscribers you have the more money you get which in turn means more funding. Dr. Yang Seung-taik explained the revenue is at the power of two, for example if you double number of subscribers you would get four times in revenue.

At the completion of the project he got the president's signature. The sustainable process gave hope and confidence to the fragile people. This in turn led to the development of semiconductors and Tiger Computers (Tycom), a mainframe computer, and so on.

Dr. Yang Seung-taik shared some hilarious anecdotes about his experiences while working on the TDX1. When they were testing the system for 500 subscribers in Songjeong-ri, a famous hot spot for fishing, instructions were made for the people in Songjeong-ri on how to make a call. First, pick up the phone, next, wait for dial tone and then dial the number. However, the people were saying the system was not working. What they were doing was when they heard the dial tone they would hang up and then dialed. He recalled another time when they were setting up the ESS they were trying to publicize more convenient features of Electronic Switching System over Mechanical System such as call transfer, call waiting, emergency numbers and voice recognition. But they found out that these features had already been in the town, because they had operator operated manual switching system.

The success of TDX1 led to the future development of the much larger scaled TDX10. (bay station->switch system at the TDX10 (connection)->than to another bay). TDX10 is based on mobile communication with a max capacity of 300,000 subscribers. The TDX1 had a max subscriber of 10,000 and everything was done electronically. Using the power of two again the telephone business was very profitable and which in turn made the telephone affordable to every citizen in Korea.

Engineering education of today is founded on the concept of the industrial society, centered on the development of industrial technologies. In the case of the communications engineering, for example, the educational contents have evolved and got enriched throughout a series of epoch-making theoretical discoveries and technological inventions in devices, systems, computers, networks and services. Without making continuous and massive investments in human resource development and R&D, Korea would not have succeeded in building a unique innovation system.

Full Series Schedule
For those interested in past or future issues of this series, here isthe full schedule of the series:

July 2009: an overview
August 2009: The electronics industry is born
September 2009: Electronics industry gains momentum
October 2009: Color TV production opens a new vista
November 2009: Radios, cassettesand electronic watches change lifestyle
December 2009: The personal computer arrives
January 2010: TDX1 introduced into the local network
February 2010: TFT LCD allows determination of film thickness
March 2010: CDMA comes into commercial use
April 2010: U-technologies (part 1)
June 2010: U-technologies (part 2)
July/August 2010 : WiMAX opens

September 2010 : Era of IPTV