From Mohamed Awang Lah
In desperation, someone hangs a mobile phone on top of a pole to get a WiFi hotspot operational.
Height is necessary to have a better signal between the phone and a nearby telecommunication tower. At the ground level, the signal may be degraded or obstructed by trees or a hill. This is a typical scenario in rural areas without good broadband coverage. It can also happen in certain parts of a city.
As of March 31, based on the Jendela report by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), there were 7.027 million premises “passed” with fibre connectivity, 95.52% of populated areas had 4G network, and the average speed of mobile broadband was 40.13 Mbps.
But nobody seems to know the actual size of the populated areas (in square km) for the
whole of the country. Without such a number, how do you plan broadband coverage?
Every tower has a limited coverage area. Nobody also seems to know how many premises are connected instead of premises “passed”. Without this number, how do we know the actual progress in wired broadband services?
In one village I visited recently, the measured mobile broadband speed varied with operators and locations, ranging from below 10 Mbps to more than 100 Mbps. For people staying there, does the average speed matter to them, rather than the actual speed? We should have a minimum speed standard rather than an average.
The other critical measure is latency. How do we address rural broadband issues to enable everyone to participate in digital economy activities? How do we narrow down the digital divide?
My suggestion is simple. We do away with construction of expensive telecommunication towers in rural areas, which can be around a million ringgit per unit. The regulatory process is very lengthy and expensive, too.
Instead, we just enable proven, high speed WiFi technology for houses using simple Passive Optical Network (PON) technology riding on fibre optic cables. Almost all mobile and desktop devices support WiFi.
In a village, we can have a Point of Presence (POP), which can be a selected house, where central equipment is installed, connected with feeder fibre cable to every house, up to 20km away, on wooden poles. But for small villages, the distance could be around a few hundred metres or less.
Installation could be community driven with materials and equipment supplied by the government under the Universal Service Provision (USP) initiative. The fibre must be the type that is coated with certain material to avoid being bitten by monkeys or squirrels. There is no second-hand value, hence it should not attract thieves.
Poles are temporary structures which means a lengthy approval process can be avoided. No high voltage is involved, just DC voltage of up to 48V. Very safe. Fibres can be pre-terminated, just plug and play. For villages without electricity, a simple solar system can be installed. We can have WiFi as fast as in towns.
However, without proper backhaul, broadband services will not work satisfactorily. This is what “Kampung Tanpa Wayar” suffered from. So was the previous 1BestariNet for schools.
How do we get backhaul? There are a few options. First is by using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite service connected to the POP. A Starlink service, for example, can provide 50 to 200 Mbps downlink speed and 10 to 20 Mbps uplink speed, sufficient to be shared by up to 20 houses, at US$110 per month.
High latency could be tolerable. It is better than nothing, but it is yet to be approved by the government.
The second option is using a microwave link to a nearby tower within the line of sight, if available and allowed.
The third is by using a fibre link to the nearest village or town where fibre already exists. Fibre can be daisy chained from one village to another, starting from those nearest to a town. Planning is critical. Once fibre exists, the satellite service or microwave link can become a backup or terminated.
When fibre backhaul is in place, mobile operators can lease it for their 4G or 5G services.
PON equipment is inexpensive compared to building a tower. One unit of Optical Line Terminator (OLT) to support thousands of users may cost a few thousand ringgit. At each house, a unit of Optical Network Unit (ONU) is needed, which costs around RM100. We can get fibre feeder cable at less than RM1 per metre. Of course, all costs would depend on the actual specifications.
I am looking forward to a more practical and cheaper solution to our broadband issue. We need to give rural people the same quality of broadband as people in towns and cities. Let them participate effectively in digital economy activities.
Mohamed Awang Lah has been involved in internet services since its inception in the mid-1980s. Before his retirement, he was the CEO of Jaring Communications Sdn Bhd.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.