ANYONE who has spent time online this week can’t have failed to notice the row which broke out between politicians about Internet speeds and costs in Malaysia.
The dispute has been taking place, appropriately enough, on the Internet.
In a battle of the blogs, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Dr Salleh Said Keruak and DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang have been arguing with each other through their respective posts on the issue.
In a nutshell, I think we all agree that our Internet connections are not fast enough and that high-speed broadband is too costly compared with many other countries.
But what exasperates many of us in the current dispute is Salleh’s statement that 71% of Malaysian Internet users prefer slower broadband packages with speeds of 384 Kbps to 1 Mbps.
“Even though higher broadband speeds are available, the majority of customers will subscribe to the cheaper and thus slower packages,” he wrote in his blog on Monday in response to Lim’s blog post about the poor state of Internet infrastructure in the country.
This predictably drew scathing replies from Lim on his blog, who pointed out that the real issue was the high costs of fast Internet speeds and that it was the minister’s duty to make them affordable.
Former Cabinet minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz also challenged Salleh’s statement, saying it was “embarrassing if the world has the perception that most Malaysians prefer the slower option, and that the government is happy with that”.
Salleh has defended his statement, insisting that the figure of 71% came from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and was not something he had made up.
“I was merely stating a fact based on statistics from MCMC that 71% choose to buy affordable Internet packages although the speed is slower.
“Of course we will find ways how we can get faster speeds at lower prices. That is the Government’s role. But now we must tell the facts. If we don’t tell the facts how can we solve the problem?” he told reporters in Kuching on Thursday.
But this is missing the point.
It is not so much the figure of 71% that is causing annoyance. Rather it is the minister’s assertion that most Malaysians “prefer” slower Internet speeds because these are cheaper.
As Lim and countless others have made clear, who in their right mind would prefer slower connections if faster speeds were available and affordable?
It isn’t just that high-speed broadband is expensive, it may not be available even when you can afford to fork out for it. How many of us are still waiting for Unifi to reach our areas, for instance?
Then there are issues surrounding reliability and quality of service. I’m sure many of us have experienced poor connections at times, not to mention slow download and upload speeds.
And what about all the rural areas which still do not have electricity supply, let alone Internet connectivity?
Instead of blaming consumer preference on the high costs of faster connections, the minister should be telling us what the Government will do to improve Internet infrastructure and make high-speed broadband widely available and affordable to everyone.
He says the target is that by 2020 at least 95% of Malaysians will have access to the Internet and that at least 50% of urban areas and 20% of rural areas have broadband speeds of 100 Mbps.
That is still five years away and even then only half of the urban population and less than a quarter of rural folk might get to enjoy high-speed broadband, with no mention of how much they might have to pay for it.
We need greater commitment and concrete measures to improve Internet speed, coverage and affordability for all Malaysians now.
Arguing about semantics and statistics will not get us anywhere.