“Malaysia, like the rest of the world, is adjusting to a new normal centred around digitalisation and internet connectivity. Lockdown or no lockdown, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed gaps in Malaysia’s digital infrastructure and network performance as people increase their use of the internet”, writes Dr Rachel Gong, is a Senior Research Associate at the Khazanah Research Institute in Kuala Lumpur.
In this blog, I look briefly at the state of Malaysia’s mobile broadband services prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and consider two government responses to the country’s digital connectivity needs during a nation-wide lockdown. The first is a short-term response to make internet connectivity more accessible while the second is a longer-term response to equip the country with strong digital infrastructure for the future.
Pre-pandemic mobile broadband service
Malaysia is a highly-connected mobile-first nation, with a 123% mobile broadband penetration rate in 2019 compared to a 9% fixed broadband penetration rate. In other words, the average Malaysian has at least one way of accessing the internet and greatly prefers to connect to the internet using mobile broadband. In 2019, 82% of populated areas reportedly received 4G coverage. Basic data plans are generally affordable, and the most popular online activities among internet users are texting and social media.
However, mobile network performance is not always consistent or of high quality. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), which regulates the national communications sector, sets several minimum quality of service (QOS) standards for mobile broadband. Its 2019 Network Performance Report shows that all mobile broadband service providers met the following mandatory minimum standards:
- at least 1 Mbps of download throughput at least 80% of the time
- not more than 250ms packet round-trip time (RTT) at least 70% of the time; and
- data packet loss of not more than 3%
Given that the National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan targeted average download speeds of 30 Mbps in 98% of populated areas by 2023, it is perhaps worth considering raising the minimum standards, especially since internet users reported download speeds of at least 4.2 Mbps and up to 17.9 Mbps.
Although some dissatisfaction existed with the quality of network speeds, Malaysians generally lived with their lot until the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated a movement control order (MCO) that kept people in their homes and accelerated people’s dependence on high speed internet connectivity for work, school, and play.
Beginning March 18th 2020, Malaysians were subject to a nationwide movement restriction, with only essential services being allowed to operate. The MCO was originally scheduled to last two weeks but was extended repeatedly albeit with more relaxed conditions. Nonetheless, the country is scheduled to remain under some form of the MCO until the end of the year, with geographical areas with high numbers or a large cluster of infections at risk of an enhanced MCO that forbids area residents from leaving their homes.
Mid-pandemic increase in internet use
Malaysian urbanites accelerated their adoption of digital technologies, especially platforms, including Lazada and Highland Fresh for produce purchases and Grab and Delivereat for food deliveries. Many also relied on streaming video sites such as Netflix and Tonton as a means of passing time while confined to their homes. Coupled with the extra load of online education and video conferencing, Malaysia’s internet traffic rose by 23.5% in the first week of the MCO alone. This corresponded with a drop in average download speeds from 13.7 Mbps in early February to 8.8 Mbps in late March as each additional activity took a toll on national digital infrastructure.
Local telecommunications and internet service providers moved quickly to combat internet disruptions and improve network performance, for example by upgrading wireless backhaul to fibre optic connections. As at September 2020, internet traffic in Malaysia was judged to have moved to residential areas and increased between 30-70% while internet speed has reduced by 30-40%.
Free data: Terms and conditions apply
During the first phase of the MCO in March, the government announced the PRIHATIN stimulus package that included a collaboration with telecommunication companies (telcos) to offer their subscribers additional free data (generally 1GB per day per subscriber). This was valued at MYR600 million and was scheduled to begin on April 1 and last until the MCO ended. While this was a welcome move in recognition of the importance of digital connectivity in contemporary society, the implementation of the plan was not well structured.
In practice, the data packages offered were not uniform, making it hard for people to keep track of their entitlements and usage. For example, some subscribers were automatically allocated their free data; others had to request it. Furthermore, data quotas and restrictions varied according to the type of subscriptions, whether prepaid or postpaid, &individual or business.
On top of that, use of the free data came with conditions. For example, the free data could only be utilised within specified hours. Some free data could only be used for specific applications, such as office applications, while some websites were zero-rated and did not count towards the use of mobile data.
These variations prevented users from being able to take full advantage of the free internet during the lockdown period and may have disproportionally affected those who needed it most. For example, parents who had to defer work until evenings and nights – a consequence of prioritising childcare during the day – could not enjoy the free data because it could only be used during office hours. Meanwhile, students studying or doing homework at night could not access data-heavy online materials such as class videos and video lectures for the same reason.
Under the assumption that the MCO that began in March was going to be a short-lived nation-wide lockdown intended to contain the coronavirus, the free data allocation under the original stimulus plan was only to be provided until the MCO ended. However, as the MCO has been extended and loosened to a conditional movement control order and a recovery movement control order (RMCO), the free data packages have been revised to extend until the end of 2020 in line with the duration of the RMCO.
As part of a second stimulus package called the PENJANA stimulus package, the 1GB daily allocation continues, but has been revised as a 1GB Productivity Internet package, for use only on selected educational, productivity, and informational platforms and websites. While productive usage of internet connectivity can be encouraged, it seems unnecessary to disallow usage of other types of online services. Notably, free data under the 1GB Productivity Internet package cannot be used on Facebook and YouTube. It could be argued that social media are non-productive; on the other hand, they are two of the most popular informational services used in Malaysia where press conferences and news segments are often broadcast, and informational services are included in the Productivity Internet package.
While well-intentioned, these restrictions on content and amount of data can entrench digital inequalities by limiting what underserved communities can access online. The restrictions also raise questions around what online platforms and services are considered productive or essential and who decides that; in other words, net neutrality.
Fortunately, the restrictions on when the free data can be used have been lifted. Under the revised package, the additional data are available at any time of day.
An increased free data allocation without usage restrictions would benefit residents in zones placed under enhanced movement control orders (EMCO). An EMCO generally restricts movement in and out of specified areas where high numbers of Covid-19 cases have been detected. Residents may not leave EMCO areas and non-residents may not enter those areas. As such, residents under EMCOs could use an additional data allocation to help cope with the restrictions of an enhanced lockdown. Extra data for video calls with friends and family outside the EMCO areas could help reduce loneliness and despair and may have mental health benefits.
Infrastructure upgrades: Planning for the future
The PRIHATIN stimulus package that included free data also indicated that telcos were committed to investing an additional MYR400 million to increase network coverage and capacity by improving their backhaul infrastructure. The National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP) announced last year by the previous government was also set to continue building and improving national digital infrastructure, especially in rural areas, using the Universal Service Provision (USP) fund.
Infrastructure development remains central to improving the quality of mobile broadband service in Malaysia. Optical fibre is valued for its capacity to transmit signals over great distances with minimal loss of data, however in remote, under-developed rural areas, the cost of deployment can be prohibitive. In 2019, only 40% of the country’s base stations have been fiberised. This can result in low throughput in Malaysia’s 4G network, due to congestion as network elements try to communicate with the core network. The MCMC has recognised the need for reliable end-to-end infrastructure to optimise network performance.
To that end, the National Digital Infrastructure Lab (NDIL) was established and developed the National Digital Network Plan (JENDELA) to improve network coverage and quality of service in preparation for the implementation of 5G in Malaysia in line with global technological advancement. Under JENDELA, which supersedes the NFCP, 4G coverage in populated areas is projected to improve from current levels of 92% to 97% in 2022 and mobile broadband speeds are projected to improve from 25 Mbps to 35 Mbps. Considering that it was just this June that a student had to sit her exams in a tree, JENDELA’s stated goal of shutting down 3G networks by the end of 2021 seems ambitious, requiring 3G towers to be upgraded to or replaced by 4G towers. A clear transition plan is needed as some Malaysians still rely on feature phones that are not 4G-compatible. These subscribers would receive lower quality mobile service if 3G were to be phased out and they did not upgrade their devices.
The new plan, announced shortly before state elections in Sabah, also focuses a lot of attention on Sabah, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo whose infrastructure development lags other parts of Malaysia due to, among other things, their hilly and rainforest topography. More telecommunications towers and fibre optics lines have been planned for development, funded by the USP programme.
According to the NDIL, two significant policy changes are required for JENDELA to meet its targets. First, internet access should be treated as a basic need and thus digital infrastructure should be planned, deployed, and run as public utilities. Second, states and local authorities should provide their blanket approval for digital infrastructure development. In Malaysia, land rights are the purview of state governments, which has been a sticking point for land development decisions in the past. These two policy changes could improve the infrastructure approvals process, especially for new development sites, although carte blanche with respect to land rights would have to be properly monitored and regulated.
Malaysia, like the rest of the world, is adjusting to a new normal centred around digitalisation and internet connectivity. Lockdown or no lockdown, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed gaps in Malaysia’s digital infrastructure and network performance as people increase their use of the internet. Having recognised the importance of digitalising its economy in order to sustain livelihoods and stay competitive, Malaysia’s government is rightly shoring up the foundations of connectivity by developing a plan to improve its digital infrastructure while trying to meet the immediate data needs of its people. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Malaysia needs to deliver on its plans to have, by 2025, 100% high quality 4G coverage in populated areas and national 5G rollout.
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
*The author is grateful for input and comments from Muhammad Nazhan Kamaruzuki and Ong Kar Jin. All errors remain the author’s own.