Staying connected a 'towering' problem

People from the village of Ulu Kapit in Sarawak brought their own sofa up a hill to get better reception. — Photos: JACQUELINE FONG

Even as the country makes a big push towards the next-generation 5G cellular network, Malaysians across the country complain of poor reception, some even having to leave their house just to get a better signal.

“The thing is, I live in Kuching, which is the capital city of Sarawak and 4G is already available. When I go to the interiors where obviously there is a lack of infrastructure, you are lucky to get 3G or HSPA, ” said Jacqueline Fong, an entrepreneur who runs a social enterprise.

“A lot of interiors in Sarawak are not connected and a lot of them have towers but they are not maintained. This is a situation I find very difficult to accept. We have such a glorious looking tower and then when I look at my phone, it says no service.”

Fong said it’s also scary for her when she finds herself unable to communicate with the outside world, especially since she is used to receiving messages all the time on her phone.

Fong says some interiors of Sarawak have no phone reception, so she can’t stay there for long.Fong says some interiors of Sarawak have no phone reception, so she can’t stay there for long.

“I try not to be in the interior for too long, maximum five days. I run a business, and business people will find it very uncomfortable when they are unable to communicate, ” she added.

She said most people have to organise their travel plans according to how long they can cope with the inconvenience, adding that this limits how much work they can get done.

It is inconceivable how Malaysia is supposed to be developed but there are so many parts of the country that still don't have basic telecommunication infrastructure, she added.

READ ALSO > 5G? What about the 4G digital divide?

This also prevents her from communicating with some rural communities, having to go there physically in order to engage them, increasing the cost of doing business.

Heineken Laluan, who owns an online grocery shopping platform in Timogah, Sarawak, agreed.

“Sarawak is really big, connection in most rural areas is still unstable. Sometimes it is 4G, sometimes 3G and sometimes Edge, ” he said.

“Now I am in Siburan, a suburban area, 40km from the Sarawak airport, and yet the connection is bad due to lack of towers.”

Though he understands that there are geographic challenges in Sarawak because of mountains, he said there is an urgent need for better network coverage.

“We need real-time updates on when supplies are required and farmers have to update us often. But because of the bad internet connection, it is difficult to call and communicate with them, ” he said.

“Often times they have to go to areas where there’s a signal. We don’t have many options. I can’t stand it because I need to be online all the time.”

As he often faces connectivity issues, he too has to plan and communicate in advance with the farmers.

Andy Khoo, a retail manager, who works in Kelantan and Terengganu, said he experiences slow connection, especially at night.

He also encounters this issue when he is a nearby mountain like Gua Musang in Kelantan or on an island like Pulau Redang or Pulau Perhentian in Terengganu.

“It is very inconvenient because I can’t use the Internet or communicate via social networks. The only option I have is voice calls, ” he said.

He also wished that more telcos would build towers closer to the sea.

Law Chee Han, 23, an outlet manager for a bubble tea franchise in Jitra, Kedah, said the company is impacted every time there is a poor connection, as even its cashier system requires 4G to operate.

“There are times when customers have trouble establishing a data connection and can’t use their e-wallet to pay. There have even been cases where customers ended up paying twice because of a laggy connection, ” he said.

“Some customers can’t show us their e-voucher due to slow Internet, so we have to bear the cost ourselves to avoid complaints.”

Just like Khoo, he also said the connection is slowest in the evening and at night.

Stephanie Tan, 22, a student from Sarawak, spent her Chinese New Year in her hometown.

“A majority of times I have no problem getting a full 4G connection. However, when I travel from Miri to Kuching by car and pass by small towns, I'll lose 4G connection, ” she said.

“Nevertheless, it is still enough for me to make calls and surf the Internet. Slow Internet connection does impact my day because I depend on social media a lot to contact people, and use apps like Google Maps to reach my destination.”

She also said the connection gets really slow during peak hours and at night.

“My Internet speed will only allow me to use WhatsApp for text and audio, and it might take a few seconds to load. From what I’ve experienced, most of the small towns only have 3G, ” she said.

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