Closing Sarawak’s digital gap tough but doable, says state agency

Some Sarawak native land owners are against having a telco tower on their property.

PETALING JAYA: The Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA) has voiced its determination to overcome the challenges it is facing in trying to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas.

One of the main challenges, according to SMA general manager Zaidi Razak, is to get rural communities to allow the building of the required infrastructure on their land.

He told FMT he was confident that SMA would eventually get their agreement although it would take a lot of effort.

In urban areas like Kuching, Miri and Sibu, telco providers are more than willing to set up the infrastructure because this will help the growth of their market shares.

But in the less urbanised and rural areas, of the state which is about 90% the size of Peninsular Malaysia, there is less of an appeal for the private sector to invest in infrastructure.

“This is where the state, through SMA, is stepping in to accelerate the bridging of the digital divide,” Zaidi said.

Under a plan unveiled in 2018 by Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg, Sarawak is investing a substantial amount to construct 300 4G capable towers to ensure coverage for 99.9% of populated areas in the state.

To date, more than 100 of the towers have been put up, and the remainder is expected to be completed by the second quarter of 2021.

Subsequently, SMA will embark on a second phase of putting up 300 more towers.

“Right now, we are focusing on the populated but non-urbanised areas in the different divisions and in districts like Betong and Sarikei,” Zaidi said.

But he said deciding on the location of the towers was the “easy part”of the plan. The hard part would be getting the locals to buy into the idea.

“Sometimes, people don’t understand the challenges we face,” he said.

“We would like nothing more than to put up a tower so the surrounding communities have internet access.

“But putting up towers in rural areas is different than doing so in urban areas. In urban areas, land is hardly an issue. You can approach building owners and get them to agree to have towers on their properties.”

In rural areas, some of the most suitable locations for towers are on native land, and Zaidi said this required the buy-in of the communities on the land and hard negotiations with the landowners.

“Some will question why we want to build a tower on their land instead of someone else’s. Some just don’t want a tower on their land.

“And we want to follow the rule of law. We do not want to bulldoze our way through. We want the buy-in.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed SMA’s efforts slightly, but Zaidi said things were back on track.

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