IN line with the Penang2030 plan, the state government has made fibreoptic telecommunications infrastructure a basic utility equivalent to water and electricity for all new development projects in the state. With this decision, Penang has become the first state in Malaysia to commit to providing high quality and comprehensive digital infrastructure to meet the needs of the new normal and bolster digital economy growth.
While the state’s decision is certainly a welcome development, it should be noted that existing homes and buildings will not benefit from it, as the requirement only applies to new development projects.
With the pandemic forcing educational, social and commercial interactions into online spaces, connectivity has become fundamental, and the Internet has become a lifeline – but not for everyone. While Malaysians turned to the Internet to work from home, keep businesses afloat, continue lessons, and stay connected, many remained without Internet access and devices. Almost 40% of students do not have access to devices for online lessons, and rural computer usage remains at 54% com pared with 74% in urban areas.
As the digital divide threatens to become a digital chasm, Malaysia continues to depend on fiberisation, which tends to be cost-intensive and time-consuming compared with other technologies that have the potential to complement fiberisation efforts.
One such example is using white spaces, the unused frequencies in the broadcast spectrum, to connect wirelessly to the Internet.
According to GSMA (the global organisation representing mobile operators worldwide), the expression “white spaces” is used to define the parts of the spectrum that are not used at a particular time and geographical location.
Among this technology’s advantages are a longer range and greater coverage area compared with conventional connectivity. It also has greater obstacle penetration in challenging terrain, which makes it suitable for rural locations. This technology has been implemented in Kenya, the Philippines, and neighbouring Singapore.
Malaysia stands to greatly benefit by leveraging this technology to bridge the digital divide. The implementation of broadcast white spaces is complementary to fiberisation, providing remote and rural areas with an option for connectivity without having to bear the high cost of laying fibre through dense forests or mountainous areas.
Perhaps it is time that Penang and other states in Malaysia consider complementary technologies such as broadcast white spaces alongside expanding fiberisation to not only future-proof new developments but ensure accessible, inclusive and sustainable Internet access for existing homes and communities. Connectivity is the electricity of the 21st century. It is not a luxury; it is critical infrastructure.
Tech Policy Fellow, Social & Economic Research Initiative (Seri)