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Malaysian Student Climbs a Tree to get Stable 3G Internet Connection – Commentary

Over the past week, stories about a Malaysian student who needs to climb a tree to get stable 3G Internet connection have been viral.

Veveonah Mosibin is a 18-year-old Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) student, from a remote village of Kampung Sabanalang Pitas, about 200km from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. She does not have any good mobile coverage at home.

Veveonah-poor-3g-coverage-sabah-mcmc-celcom-tunetalk

Recently, she posted a video about the need to climb a tree and spend overnight in the jungle, just to get a good 3G signal, to sit for her online exams. She almost got stung by a giant hornet in the process.

The video below was posted by Veveonah Mosibin on her Youtube page, on June 13, which now has close to 600,000 views at the time of writing:

Ever since her story and video have gone viral, Veveonah Mosibin got the attention of Pitas District Education Office (Pejabat Pendidikan Daerah (PPD) Pitas), Telekom Malaysia (TM) and Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

It is believed that the general manager for Sabah of Telekom Malaysia (TM) visited Veveonah Mosibin last week, however no official statement were made by the national Telco company on the purpose of the visit and if they could resolve the problem faced by the student.

[Note: The cheapest fixed broadband service from Telekom Malaysia cost RM69/month for Streamyx while its wireless broadband service called Unifi Air cost RM79/month]

MCMC, the one and only communication regulator in the country have made a statement on 17 June 2020, saying it has “Ambil Tindakan” on the poor mobile coverage issue.

However at the time of writing, Veveonah Mosibin still needs to climb a tree to get a stable 3G Internet connection on her smartphone. Her problem is not yet resolved.

According to MCMC, at the moment, there is a Telecommunication tower located as far as 1.4 kilometer from Kampung Sapatalang in Pitas where the student is based. This tower offers 3G coverage and there was a plan to upgrade the site to 4G under the Universal Service Provision (USP) fund since early this year. But it was never upgraded.

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Picture: An example of a Telco Tower built using MCMC USP Fund

Based from the MCMC statement, only now the regulator plans to implement proper mobile coverage in Kampung Sapatalang with a new Telco tower in a nearby village called Kampung Bilangau Kecil. This process by MCMC will take up to one year to complete (2Q21), under its National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP 1).

Download the full media statement from MCMC (only available in Bahasa Malaysia) here- [PDF].

In the meantime, MCMC is working on deploying 5G mobile coverage in Malaysia.

Commentary

Apparently, MCMC thinks that Veveonah Mosibin should continue climbing trees in the next one year to get a good 3G signal on her smartphone.

For starters, the issue faced by Veveonah Mosibin isn’t new in this country. The first 4G network in Malaysia was launched by Maxis in 2013 and more than 7 years later today, the top 3 Telcos claim close 90% to 4G LTE mobile coverage all over the country, but only in human populated areas. For Kampung Sapatalang, there may be humans living there, but it may not have been considered a human populated area that deserved mobile coverage, from a business perspective.

At that’s the problem right there.

A telecommunication service is a business. Like any other businesses, the goal is to make a profit. Telco companies need to justify the cost of setting up a Telco tower, and they need customers, a lot of customers. If a village only has about 20-30 people, it makes no business case for the Telcos to set up a base station that cost a few hundred thousand ringgit. Return of investment will probably take forever or never. This doesn’t even include the cost related to other factors such as geography, electricity, land rental and others.

Even in city area, there are still a number of buildings including less popular shopping malls that still don’t have indoor coverage until today because there isn’t a justified business case for the Telcos to spend hundred thousands of ringgit to set up the infrastructure.

The state Government must also give permission for Telcos to set up a tower and this process can be tedious and costly. It was revealed that a staggering USD18,000 (estimated RM76k) fee is needed to set up a Telecommunication tower in one of the state in Malaysia. This USD18,000 is only a fee and not the cost of the base station itself.

Sadly, in the case of Veveonah Mosibin, the student doesn’t even have basic necessities such as water and electricity at home, making this a real challenge for any Telco to set up a mobile communication tower in the area.

That is why, in 2002, about 18 years ago, MCMC set up the Universal Service Provider (USP) fund to “to improve communications access to areas which are underserved by the main telecommunications providers”. The funds are contributed annually by the major Telecommunication companies in Malaysia. You may read more about USP here.

The USP fund, stood around RM7 billion at the end of 2018, is managed by MCMC. About RM1.9 billion was collected and RM1.2 billion spent in 2018 alone.

Based on the latest USP fund report from MCMC which is currently outdated, the regulator claims that it has built 1833 base stations from 2014 to 2018. This turns out to be an average 203 Telco towers a year.

As of 2018, MCMC built 367 towers in Sabah and 458 towers in Sarawak, the highest among other states in the country.

From 2014 to 2018, MCMC upgraded some 4895 existing Telco towers nationwide with 3G and/or 4G. Some one thousand base stations each in Sabah and Sarawak were upgraded as part of this project, highest among other states.

Between 2019 and 2020, MCMC said it will build 300 Telco towers nationwide including a total of 106 towers for Sabah and Sarawak. It will also upgrade 1000 base stations nationwide including 400 sites in Sabah and Sarawak.

You may download the MCMC 2018 USP Annual report here.

While the numbers look really good on paper, Veveonah Mosibin is probably among thousands of those who still can’t get a proper, quality 3G mobile signal in 2020. This doesn’t include those who live in city areas yet only getting 3G signal on their phone.

To resolve the problem faced by Veveonah Mosibin, a new 3G/4G Telco tower is required at her village but MCMC is not able set this up within weeks. Perhaps the regulator should consult with the real experts on Telco towers such as edotco, Huawei, ZTE Malaysia and mobile service providers such as Maxis, Celcom Axiata, Digi and U Mobile.

For example, edotco has a Tower to Community (T2C) programme where its Telco towers are powered by renewable energy sources and diesel generators. It also channels excess electricity from its towers to power up homes and services for communities living in nearby areas. This project could possibly provide electricity to the home of Veveonah Mosibin and others.

As the saying goes, if there’s a will, there’s a way. If the Industry, including the Sabah state Government, could get together to fix this problem, it can be resolved in a very short period of time.

The Sabah state Government should also ensure that the entire village will now get water and electricity because these are basic human needs.

In the meantime, since proper mobile Internet coverage wasn’t deployed at Kampung Sabanalang Pitas over the past decade, an apology from MCMC to Veveonah Mosibin and those living at her village would be sufficient for now.

About Kugan

Kugan is the founder of MalaysianWireless. He has been observing the mobile industry since 2003. Connect with him on Twitter: @scamboy