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Friday, February 01, 2002

Malaysia’s Internet Development Heading for the "We Won’t Wait" Syndrome?

It was recently reported in the press that the progress of the Information Technology (IT) and the Internet economy in the country could be a little hampered by the still very low online population of the country. It was estimated that the computer penetration rate is around 11 percent and out of this figure, more than 50 percent are concentrated at the Klang Valley. The number of registered Internet users is even lower, at about 6 percent of the total population of Malaysia.

The same report suggested that in order to increase Internet up-take, there is a need to improve the computer penetration rate in the country. Fair enough, but for many Internet veterans, even if this rate can be brought up, there is still a big possibility that the number of ‘netizens’ may be reduced in the coming years if two crucial elements - speed and cost - are not addressed soon by the relevant authorities.

Despite being one of the leading countries in South East Asia in terms of IT development, Malaysia may need to give more attention especially in the provision of a low cost high speed connection service. There is without much doubt that one of the most effective ways to expand the number of netizens in Malaysia is to significantly increase the loading speed of surfing through improved online services and connection infrastructure. The other alternative is to reduce the cost of Internet access and phone charges, which are still rather expensive here.

At the moment, most surfers have to wait almost eternity for a web page to completely ‘open’ or load. This is because most of us are currently surfing at 28.8 or 33.6 Kbps (kilobit per second) through our old telephone line modem connection mode. Even with an ISDN or a leased line connection (or also known as Ethernet), the transmission speed averaged about 64 Kbps or slightly more. Our phone line cables are not yet up to scratch as far as surfing the Internet is concerned.

In the U.S., Ethernet, which is the most widely installed local area network technology, can provide an average transmission speed of 3 to 5 Mbps (megabit per second). In simple English, surfing in the U.S. is at least 100 times faster on average than in Malaysia. And then there are broadband technology (i.e., using digital carrier system cable or satellite) users who can surf the net at a speed of up to 10 Gbps (gigabit or 1 billion bits per second). These services, which are normally provided by a cable TV or satellite TV operator, have mushroomed in the U.S. in the last few years.

In Malaysia, it may take several more years for the government or Telekom to completely upgrade our existing phone cable to optical fibre or high grade coaxial cable, which will bring about high speed transmission. Instead of waiting, there should be some initiatives from the private sector (or joint government-private collaborations) to look into the feasibility of providing an avenue for faster and cheaper Internet connection.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Jaring and Tmnet should think of alternatives to quicken their current rate of transmission. If they can’t do this in the near term, at least think of a practicable option to increase their subscribers base. For example, the ISPs should seriously consider providing free Internet access as well as move toward a fixed-rate charges for local calls. Given the current slow rate of loading time in the Internet, we are actually paying more for the waiting time. This is quite similar to subscribing to a daily newspaper, only to receive your supposedly daily paper once or twice a fortnight. This puts many netizens off. Most users have even limit their time online to save cost.

Cable TV operators such as the now defunct Mega TV, should initiate an Internet connection service to its customer. Besides faster loading time, there is also the luxury of users to access the Internet anytime of the day without hooking to the phone line. That is why cable TV is experiencing a boom in the U.S. However, the cost of implementing such strategy may be too much for a any cable TV operator in the country.

Astro Internet service has yet to commence even though their subscribers have been promised about this value-added service a few years ago. With Astro’s satellite/broadband technology, Internet users can surf at a potential speed of more than 100 times (or even more) faster than at present. Surfing from one web page to another then, would be akin to changing TV channels through the remote control. More importantly, Astro’s technology would be most suitable to expand Internet usage in the rural parts of Sabah.

But sadly, according to Astro, their coming Internet service may not cover the entire World Wide Web (www) for some unknown reason. Perhaps, it means that their subscribers can only surf to selected web sites or Astro’s affiliate web sites. To make matter worse, a fading actor was thinking of shutting down Astro for good. And I thought information is ‘King’ in this IT era? If Astro is banned, we might as well bid farewell to the Internet.

It appears to be not much in store for Internet surfers in Malaysia. As the world braces itself for new and faster connection technology such as the WAP (wireless application protocol), we in Malaysia, still have to rely on our over-used phone line modem. The acronym ‘www’ has already been widely referred to as the ‘World Wide Wait’, but if the speed and cost issues are not resolved soonest, then ‘www’ may well be known as ‘We Won’t Wait’. In such scenario, there would be more ex-netizens than netizens in Malaysia, and our Vision 2020 would still remain a vision by 2020.

Note: The above article was first published in Sabah's leading newspaper, the Daily Express, in April 2000. Some of the information may be outdated.

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