Malaysia’s Internet: Not dire straits, but could be better

Ahmad Hafidz Baharom

Hafidz Baharom, Malay Mail Online

There was obviously some shock when the recent Akamai State of the Internet quarterly report was published recently and made its way to the press. It was especially infuriating when the headline puts us trailing behind Sri Lanka and Thailand, but what is not highlighted is the full picture. In fact, it omitted the worst statistic in the entire report regarding Malaysia.

See, the worst information received from the report is that demand for Internet speeds higher than 15 Mbps in the last quarter dropped to a mere 1 per cent, registering a 38 per cent compared with the same period in 2014.

This highlights a few possibilities.

One: The government has stopped promoting broadband penetration and the fund for further infrastructure development has run out

Two: Telco providers are facing a too-saturated market

Or three: Malaysians no longer see a need for high-speed broadband

All three of the possibilities are linked. A lack of infrastructure prohibits telco providers from targeting new markets and subsequently, Malaysians make do without the need for a landline broadband service.

Instead, Malaysians have grown more dependent on mobile broadband. This can be seen in the Akamai report as well, since it highlights that 55 per cent of the growth in Internet access is above 4 Mbps, but only 4.5 per cent growth for services above 10Mbps.

As such, obviously our average speed is then brought down to a mere 5 Mbps. Because this is what the average Malaysian is using on their mobile Internet devices.

There are a lot of factors to take into account for this. Firstly, it is the price fixing of data itself. The quota system by telcos limits the ability of Internet application development, which will subsequently boost a need for better penetration and even higher speeds.

To cut it short, high speeds into the Internet is not a major priority due to cost to the consumers.

Secondly, it is the fact that Malaysians have a smartphone culture but not a demand for high-speed broadband services. For instance, we do not have any streaming or legal downloading access applications for smartphones.

Other than Spotify and iFlix, Malaysia does not have many applications on the smartphone that require high speeds. Of course, more crafty Malaysians have moved towards wanting higher Internet speeds due to their ability to access international streaming content on YouTube, Netflix and Hulu — perhaps even HBO On Demand for those Game of Thrones addicts.

As such, the demand for high speeds in Malaysia is instead driven by one factor — file-sharing piracy. But here is the thing, access to streaming access and even localised online services allowing the purchase of items from books to music undoes piracy.

Which is why Internet access and high broadband speeds made available nationwide actually helps the government in their anti-piracy movement. Obviously it cannot help stop the fake purse cartel, but it will stop instances of intellectual property theft.

But at the same, until media outlets especially television start pushing towards more online content, applications and even media, it will not encourage the development of better infrastructure and higher speeds from consumers.

Surprisingly, in this sense, better Internet speeds are quietly being encouraged by our private radio stations either knowingly or unknowingly.

As such, it has become a Gordian Loop; access to higher speeds is limited due to no consumer demand because of cost and quotas that are in place because of what is called a “fair usage” policy that limits access to higher speeds and thus lowering demand.

Without infrastructure, access to the Internet is limited, thus limiting new customers, subsequently impacting not just the plan to increase broadband speeds, but also the services sector.

For obvious reasons, Malaysians are now more focused on developing online businesses either in small-scale on-demand retail or even large conglomerate banks and online services. While it is true that online businesses are urban-centric, the limited access to Malaysians themselves hinders their growth from micro status to small or medium enterprises.

Similarly, access to high-speed Internet will also limit the existence of these enterprises to only be based in urban areas, again causing yet another factor of inequality in the urban-rural divide.

In this sense, I will agree with DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang in asking Tan Sri Salleh Said Keruak to get down and dirty in the quest for bettering the Internet for everyone’s sake in this country.

To do this is simple; end the quota on fair usage. Push for lower prices to Internet access. Increase landline broadband penetration by providing the funds to telcos in the upcoming budget. At the same time, legislation needs to change.

Telcos need to be penalised when speeds drop drastically with no warning regardless of mobile or landed connections. Telcos must also have a set time frame to provide their services in new developments for both residential and commercial areas.

Internet access to new developments must be treated like any utility such as water and electricity. It is no longer to be considered a privilege but a right of all Malaysians to access.

The sooner the government realises this, the better we will all be. It could even indirectly encourage Malaysians to better their English, provided we don’t have ridiculous subtitles translating a drinking toast to “roti bakar”.