Connecting Sarawak in the new normal

Telco tower with longhouse … This telco tower outside a longhouse is an effort by the state government to provide telecommunication services to under-served areas. Photo: SMA.

Due to its terrain which varies from coastal lowlands to mountainous hinterland, Sarawak has long presented challenges to connectivity in terms of building roads and providing internet access.

Throw in the delay brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, and it’s a big challenge for Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA) to achieve state-wide connectivity in under-served areas by 2025.

“Building connectivity is not just about physical infrastructure (which makes up Phase 1), but also about services (Phase 2). We also need to make sure that the implementation is sustainable,” said Sarawak Multimedia Authority general manager, Dr Zaidi Razak, during a live radio interview on RTM’s Sembang Digital Normal Baru on Sarawak FM with Azam Sarawak as he broke down the factors behind establishing connectivity.

Sarawak Multimedia Authority general manager Dr Zaidi Razak interviewed during ‘Sembang Digital Normal Baru’ on RTM’s Selamat Pagi Sarawak on Sarawak FM.

So far 184 towers have been built under the Sarawak Multimedia Authority Rural Telecommunication (Smart) programme, with 416 more expected to be built by 2021.

To speed up bridging the digital gap, SMA is also working together with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to complement each other’s existing telecommunication infrastructure, the latter which was announced in Parliament on Sept 23 that it would be constructing 31 new communication towers to improve the coverage and service quality of 4G mobile broadband.

In addition, under Jalinan Digital Negara (Jendela) announced on Aug 29, 636 new towers will be built. Jendela is an improved version of the National Fiberisation Connectivity Plan (NFCP) in response to changing patterns of usage brought about by the pandemic.

This comes after the National Digital Infrastructure Lab (NDIL) held from July 13 to August 14 moderated by MCMC, which sets goals for quality access to digital connectivity nationwide. For its part in the NDIL, SMA discussed how Sarawak could accelerate its connectivity with regards to existing infrastructure, topography and community engagement in rural areas.

Jungle telco tower … This one was built under the Smart 300 programme near Rumah Alek in Kapit. Photo: SMA

“When it comes to fulfilling its implementation, we need to look at construction materials, topography, and the line of sight as tower connectivity cannot be achieved in hilly and mountainous areas,” he said.

For locations in remote, hilly areas that prevent line-of-sight between towers, Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellites are used.

“In our plan to target connectivity throughout Sarawak, we aim to use all of the state government’s allocation to sub-urban, urban, remote, and rural areas,” he said, in addition to opening tenders to local industry players to increase connectivity across the state.

Accelerating digital adoption

Telco tower with SMA signage … James Bungan from SMA’s inspectorate unit points at a sign outside a telco tower near Rumah Penghulu Anyi. Photo: SMA

Before Covid-19 and the movement control order (MCO) accelerated digital adoption by the people, SMA has carried as many as 361 awareness programmes to 51,350 participants to expose the public to digital technology, digital literacy as well as e-commerce to close the rural-urban digital literacy gap.

Through digital inclusivity programmes which include People Accessible, Network, for Digital Empowerment Inclusivity (Pandei) workshops and Rindok Digital, rural dwellers have been taught digital literacy as well as given exposure to ecommerce tools which include social media platforms to build their own start-ups or search for extra income.

“In addition, we have had several school programmes in the interiors like Long Busang, Long San where we’re not just targeting students; we’re also targeting other young people. We are introducing the benefits of digital economy, and raising awareness of how they can earn their living using digital technology.

“When the MCO was imposed last March 18, people didn’t know how they were going to go about their daily lives, but that is how ‘good’ Covid-19 is — good for digital adoption because it spurred people to start using digital solutions, using technology like WhatsApp or Zoom to connect, to trade.”

“A roadside trader, for example, can sell ‘kueh’ via WhatsApp and use runners to deliver the products, thus giving jobs to those with motorcycles, and so on.”

The first 5G testbed in the country housed at Centexs Sarawak is yet another landmark achievement for Sarawak connectivity. A Sarawak government initiative through Centexs, Sarawak Media Authority (SMA) and Sarawak Digital Economy Corporation (SDEC), it is a bold step forward in the state’s digital economy transformation and will be used to promote and coordinate test and research into the deployment of 5G.

About AZAM Sarawak
Angkatan Zaman Mansang (AZAM) which means a “Movement for Progress” is a non-profit and non-governmental organisation which seeks to facilitate development efforts in Sarawak through promoting development communication.