Friday, March 24, 2023

Cheaper Solution for Rural Broadband – Dr Mohamed b Awang Lah

In desperation, someone hang 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 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 31 March 2022, based on JENDELA report by MCMC (Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission) there were 7.027 mil 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 populated area (in square km) for the whole the country. Without such number, how do you plan broadband coverage? Every tower has limited coverage area. Nobody also seems to know how many premises connected instead of premises passed. Without this number, how do we know the actual progress in wired broadband services. In one village that I visited recently, the measured mobile broadband speed varies 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 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 PON (Passive Optical Network) technology riding on fibre optic cable. Almost all mobile and desktop devices support WiFi.

In a village we can have a POP (Point of Presence), which can be a selected house, where central equipment is installed, connected with feeder fibre cable to every house, up to 20 km away, on wooden poles. But for small villages distance could be around a few hundred meters or less. Installation could be community driven with materials and equipment supplied by the government under USP (Universal Service Provision) 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 lengthy approval process could 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 LEO (Low Earth Orbit) 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 for up to 20 houses, at USD110 per month. High latency could be tolerable. It is better than nothing, but it is yet to be approved by the government. Second is by using a microwave link to a nearby tower within line of sight – if available and allowed. Third is by using a fibre link to the nearest village or town where fibre already existed. Fibre can be daisy chained from one village to another, starting from those nearest to towns. Planning is very critical. Once fibre exist, the satellite service or microwave link can become a backup or be terminated. When fibre backhaul is in place, mobile operators can lease it for their 4G or 5G services.

PON equipment is very inexpensive compared to building a tower. One unit of OLT (Optical Line Terminator) to support thousands of users may cost a few thousands Ringgit. At each house a unit of ONU (Optical Network Unit) is needed, which cost around a hundred Ringgit. We can get fibre feeder cable at less than one Ringgit per meter. 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.


Dr Mohamed b Awang Lah has been involved in Internet services since its inception in mid 1980’s. Prior to retirement, he was the CEO of JARING Communications Sdn Bhd, the first Internet service provider in Malaysia. He can be reached on Facebook.

The views/comments/opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the view of MalaysianWireless.

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