Richard Li's 'Killer App'

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Why was Richard Li so hot to land Hongkong Telecom? Broadband. That's the buzzword for everyone's favorite next killer app, the technology that will let us download nearly everything, fast. Think Hollywood blockbusters on demand, zapped via satellite instantly onto your Web-enabled TV. Or your refrigerator automatically reordering groceries--fat-free if your Net-linked bathroom scale suggests you've been eating too well lately.Savio Chow, U.S. Web portal Yahoo!'s boss in Asia, is thrilled about broadband's prospects. He looks forward to the day when his PalmPilot can command his daughter's electronic pet dog to bark bedtime stories to her while Dad is delayed 15,000 m above in business class. It's about personalizing your life, says Chow, and not living to someone else's code.
The broadband revolution just on the horizon has already helped spur three of capitalism's most audacious business deals: America Online's proposed takeover of content and cable giant Time Warner (parent of this magazine's publisher); Motorola's merger with General Instruments and, most recently, Li's takeover of Cable & Wireless HKT. The technology, in other words, is red hot.So what is broadband, anyway? Techies like to call it fat pipe or chunky cable, but the terms don't capture the promise of the high-capacity, mega-speed fiber-optic nervous system. Broadband can come in the form of sophisticated cabling, or as wireless signals satellited directly to home or office. When it's fully operational, we'll laugh about the quality of today's Net experience, predicts Mock Pak Lum, chief executive of Singapore's government-backed 1-Net broadband initiative.

You might have broadband capability already--on your office computer, perhaps, or maybe even at home via a service like HKT's Super Netvigator, whose network can reach 80% of Hong Kong with a technology called DSL, or digital subscriber line. Broadband services for the PC have also popped up in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Two years from now, you could have broadband links on your mobile phone and personal digital assistant. More importantly, you'll have something to do with it. The great thing about HKT is that they've got this network, says Joan Wagner, a CyberWorks spokesperson. But no one subscribes, because they basically don't have much content going down the pipes.

Li's vision of the future is one in which satellites and modem-equipped cable TV boxes enable a villager in, say, Laos to be as wired to the Web as a banker in Tokyo. It's still some time off. But with his embrace of HKT, Li now has the basic infrastructure to chase his dream--if only in a small corner of the continent--by trying out his ambitious NOW (Network of the World) on Hong Kongers before turning to the rest of Asia--and the world.

But he also has a phone company to manage. Merged together, that's a big opportunity for this particular Web visionary. That is, if he can stop networking the dealmakers and start networking the region.