August 21, 2014 12:00 am JST

Want to see the Internet of Things in action? Head to a university -- in Seoul

YEWON KANG, Contributing writer

Students can use their smartphones to book seats in the university's library. Photo by Yewon Kang

SEOUL -- It's summer, but the campus of Sookmyung Women's University is still full of students.

     Han Ye-min, a sophomore majoring in Chinese literature, opens the Smart Sookmyung app as soon as she walks onto campus. She checks the app to see if there is a free seat at the main library, spots a few on the screen and taps a button. Just like that, she has a reserved seat in the library.

     "At exam time, people used to line up early in the morning in front of the library to reserve a seat," Han said. "But now, with the new system, those days are gone."

     SWU is one of two universities in South Korea where KT, the country's second largest mobile operator, has installed a system based on so-called contactless technology, which allows students to wave their smartphones to enter secured buildings, hold library seats and record their class attendance.

     KT, which operates in a fiercely competitive market in a country with more than 100% mobile penetration, is desperately seeking new growth opportunities. It has been losing subscribers to LG Uplus, the smallest of South Korea's three main mobile operators. SK Telecom, meanwhile, is maintaining its dominance.

     The university system uses a wireless technology called near-field communication, which is part of a bigger trend known as the Internet of Things, in which sensors in various devices wirelessly connect the gadgets.

     Apart from Apple iPhones, most smartphones have built-in NFC chips that can send and receive data using short-range radio frequencies. Smartphones detect NFC tags that are attached to seats in lecture halls and libraries, for example, and the Smart Sookmyung app matches them with each student's identity stored in his or her phone.

     An NFC tag costs less than a dollar, and more than 5,000 are installed across the campus, according to Jung Dong-hey, who is in charge of the university's NFC network. Each chip has a unique system identifier and information about its location that can be monitored by the central data center.

     If a student were to steal a tag from the classroom and to scan it outside of the classroom to fake attendance, the system would be alerted. QR codes are available for iPhone users who cannot use the NFC system. Jung said with the NFC technology in place, the university hopes to bring retailers and credit card companies aboard for wireless on-campus transactions.

     The number of devices connected to the Internet of Things around the world is expected to grow from 1.9 billion today to 9 billion by 2018, according to a Business Insider report. The number of things capable of talking to one another then will be almost equal to the combined number of smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, wearable computers and PCs, the report said.

     A good example of a talking thing is Nest Labs' smart thermostat. The U.S. startup was bought by Google in January for more than $3 billion. Its Nest thermostat allows users to remotely control their homes' heating and air conditioning systems.

     KT is hoping that its groundbreaking experiments on the Seoul campuses will help it become a leader in this new field. It plans to invest 4.5 trillion won ($4.40 billion) in Gigatopia, a superfast network linking people and machines in five sectors: energy, health care, media, security and transportation. It is hoping that rival operators and manufacturers will sign on.

     Hwang Chang-gyu, KT's CEO, told a mobile telecom conference in June that Gigatopia is at the heart of the company's overall strategy. Since it requires extremely fast Internet connections, KT is developing a 5G network with Cisco Systems that can transfer data 10 times faster than existing 4G networks. KT is also working on a network that merges 4G mobile connectivity with Wi-Fi networks to allow for a connection speed of up to 600 megabits per second.

     For KT, the system at the women's university is the first step in becoming a major force in the Internet of Things. What's next? Well, KT is talking about building a system that links electric vehicles with charging stations and maintenance centers.