FINALLY, the government has realised that giving to one company the rights to build the cellular sites was not such a good idea.
The appointment of Asiaspace Dotcom Sdn Bhd as the sole provider of celullar sites last March had raised a great hue and cry.
Many had questioned the move and why the company was accorded privileges when the market was liberalised.
On Tuesday, Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik reversed that decision, thereby opening up the market to new entrants.
But state-backed companies are preferred as they are seen as better positioned to get state government co-operation and approvals, which is the sore point in getting the populated areas connected.
“There is a need for the states to take ownership and be pro-active in helping celcos expand coverage. It is in line with the government’s vision and the states should make it their priority to help the celcos,” Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission chairman Datuk V. Danapalan said.
Digi.com Bhd outgoing chief executive officer (CEO) Tore Johnsen said if state-owned companies could get the necessary approvals and speed up the entire process, it was a good move.
“But it should be done at reasonable prices and not cost the operators more than what they are paying now for building cellular sites,” he said.
The two major obstacles operators face in their quest to provide nationwide coverage is the long approval process and securing sites for the transmission equipment to be installed.
There are currently over 9,000 cellular sites in the country that provide about 80% cellular coverage. Towers account for 2,000 of the sites.
“Since last year about 80% to 90% of the new cellular sites erected are done on a shared basis, either erected by one of the three players or by a third party, which is Asiaspace,” said Maxis CEO Datuk Jamaludin Ibrahim.
“The trend is towards sharing of cellular sites and the savings can be anything from 5% to as high as 50%,” he said.
Celcom (M) Bhd group CEO Datuk Ramli Abbas said while sharing of sites was a good concept, there were constraints too.
“We have been utilising the existing towers to provide better network coverage. However, site suitability is a concern and if they are shared, some may not meet the coverage objectives of an individual operator,” Ramli said.
Asiaspace had been effective and served the purpose of making it cheaper to build transmission sites, added Jamaludin.
But Asiaspace too faced problems in getting approvals or securing sites.
Providing coverage is not merely about erecting towers.
It is the whole gamut of civil works, fibre optics, and microwave to switching equipment.
A cellular site can be a tower, or an antenna on a rooftop or even in a building, also known as in-building.
Even before operators can do anything they have to first scout for a suitable site where microwave signals can pass thorough easily; then comes the most arduous process of getting approvals from 10 different bodies or agencies, comprising local councils, Waterworks Department, Works Department, town planning unit, Drainage Department, Fire Safety Department and even the Housing Department.
It is akin to getting a CF (certificate of fitness) for a building. The approval process can take three to six months and about 15 to 40 signatories are needed, according to Jamaludin.
That has been an issue in the past as getting the approvals was most often the reason behind the delay in coverage planning.
And while everyone wants coverage in Putrajaya and Cyberjaya, which are considered hotspots, “it remains a mystery why it is not happening,” said Jamaludin.
It is not that the operators are unwilling or there are no takers for the service, the crux of the matter is finding suitable sites is a hassle and getting approvals, a tedious effort.
And Dr Lim's suggestion for celcos to use TV and radio towers as options to provide cellular coverage may not be seen in the same light by the players.
“Celcom supports the idea of co-sharing but most of the radio and TV towers are located on hill tops. It may not be suitable for celcos to install equipment since there would be interference due to spillage in coverage,” Ramli pointed out.
DiGi’s Johnsen agreed that interference in service was possible.
And all the talk that transmission sites in residential areas are hazardous to health may be a myth. Operators cannot put up sites unless they meet World Health Organisation guidelines.
“So far there is no conclusive scientific evidence showing the impact of radiation transmission from cellular sites on health,” Ramli said.
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