Plans to increase rural internet access welcomed

File photo shows a girl studying online at home. Photo: Bernama

KUCHING: Online learning poses great challenges for pupils in the rural areas of Sarawak as there is limited access to internet, or no connectivity at all.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced schools nationwide to close, thus online home-based learning may not be as effective yet.

In several rural or interior areas, teachers would need to travel far either by road or take a boat to send students learning materials to their respective longhouses. While for some students, they would need to climb up hills or set up tents in the jungle just to get a good connection to attend online classes.

Realising these challenges, Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA) and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) have agreed in principle to work together to tackle the urgent need for broadband internet connectivity in underserved areas in the state.

Rural assemblymen in the state welcome the announcement by SMA and MCMC on their joint efforts to increase internet connectivity especially in their areas.

Gerald Rentap Jabu

Layar assemblyman Gerald Rentap Jabu said the initiative was in line with the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and Perikatan Nasional (PN) government policy to provide internet accessibility to all Malaysian especially under the present new norm.

“However, I have concerns due to the cost of data, equipment and the level of knowledge not only for the students but the educators in the rural areas,” he said.

He said there is a very high percentage of educators who are still unfamiliar with online platforms such as Google classroom.

“Our Layar Education Development Committee and Dr Nurrunanti Jalli had conducted research on ‘Internet Connectivity and Online Learning Challenges Amidst Covid-19 Pandemic in Layar: Teachers’ Perspective (2020).

“From the research findings, there are some issues that need to be resolved,” he noted.

The research methods were carried out through online survey and focus group discussion. On the online survey conducted from Sept 3 to Oct 17 this year, throughout the data collection period, 359 responses involving teachers from 16 schools in Layar were recorded. While 65 teachers representing seven schools participated in the focus group discussion.

The findings indicate a severe connectivity problem in Layar, especially for those living outside Betong town. Other issues included students not owning a proper device for online learning; parents could not afford an unlimited internet connection; some telcos with better internet deals do not have adequate coverage where students live; student’s low level of digital competence; student could not learn new topics since many of their classmates were unable to join the lessons online.

Another finding of the research is on exploring how to improve online learning experience for both teachers and students in Layar. Among the solutions suggested were to install more towers in Layar and speedier internet in Betong; provide training to teachers and students to familiarise all parties with e-learning; create education task force to collectively create content for online learning; provide students with devices to enable online learning; suggest the government to develop affordable internet plan for education; have townhall sessions to educate parents about online learning, among others.

Despite the difficulties, teachers in Layar and Betong continue to print out learning materials and send them to the longhouses to ensure students would not stop learning although they do not have internet access.

Meanwhile, Balai Ringin assemblyman Datuk Snowdan Lawan, commenting on SMA and MCMC’s effort to bridge the connectivity gaps by providing broadband services in Sarawak, said this would provide stable connectivity for students to study online more conveniently.

“It is long overdue actually, but better late than never.

He said Covid-19 pandemic had worsened the situation with compelling demands from rural schools and the rural populace in general.

“Hopefully SMA and MCMC could expedite this synergy for the benefits of the students, and some cottage industries which rely on the internet for marketing and delivering information,” he said.

He said students who were unable to attend school lessons during the pandemic must be the priority target.

“With stable connectivity, they can resume studies conveniently without interruption regardless of locality.

“Our wish is with stable connectivity facilities (broadband internet facilities), it will provide alternative teaching medium for our students in the underserved areas,” he said.

He believed that SMA and MCMC undertakings would be comprehensive and covering all areas in the state.

“Resolve it once and for all. It has been haunting us. It (internet) is a necessity now in this 21st century era,” he said.

Snowdan also added with better connectivity, it would augur well with the state Digital Economy Strategy that is due in 2022.

Meanwhile Dalat assemblywoman Datuk Seri Fatimah Abdullah also hoped that internet connectivity in the rural areas could be resolved as soon as possible.

She suggested that SMA and MCMC work together and come out with a mapping of underserved areas in Sarawak.

“Through the cooperation, SMA and MCMC can work out an understanding of which agency to serve which area so that wider and greater areas can be covered concurrently,” she said.

She said internet connectivity tops the list of people’s needs during the Covid-19 and it is an essential need for the education sector, economic and communication activities.

SMA on Nov 29 said the authority and MCMC had agreed in principle on the urgent need to ramp up broadband connectivity to underserved areas in Sarawak.

The authority said together with MCMC, they would work towards finding the best solution to fulfill the communication needs of all Sarawakians.

MCMC on last Nov 20 announced the commencement of phase one of the Pelan Jalinan Digital Negara (Jendela) with the issuance of the first invitation for the submission of draft plans for the provisioning of public cellular and mobile broadband services at 1,661 locations nationwide.

Out of the 1,661 locations identified by the Commission, a total 636 locations are located in Sarawak.