Building a strong foundation for rural broadband access

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By Alvin Ung

In 1999, buoyed by the success of installing telecommunication services in the remote village of Bario in Sarawak, Dato’ Sri Dr. Halim Shafie and his team of officers started Phase One of rolling out rural broadband. They had an idea: why not leverage on existing infrastructure — the 643 post offices nationwide — to set up the Internet centres?

Halim’s men equipped two post offices in Kota Marudu and Sungai Ayer Tawar with computers. But the idea failed. The space was too cramped. The respective postmasters were too busy to maintain the computers. Worse, no one was using the computers.

Reflecting on that failure led Halim to test out five new ideas that eventually became the foundation for rolling out broadband access in rural areas.

The first idea was to create a viable space and identity for the Pusat Internet Desa. Since doing it within the post office didn’t work, why not build an annexe next to the post office? Encouraging Pos Malaysia to embrace the Internet was easy enough to do since Halim was then sitting on the board of Pos Malaysia.

Second, Halim envisioned hiring qualified graduates to helm the centres. Halim wanted committed and motivated staff who would act as change agents — to excite and educate the young and old in rural communities on the wonders of the Internet. To do this, he had to convince the government to agree on the proposal. “My biggest challenge was getting people to buy in to the concept of hiring graduates who would work in a small facility in a rural area,” Halim said.

Third, Halim enlisted private telecommunications companies to set up the centres and hire staff. Here, he was aided by the CMA 1998 law which required all licensed telecommunication companies to contribute 6% of their annual income into government-managed account. Telcos could tap on this fund to install broadband services in needy areas. The private sector also injected their know-how to produce big improvements in delivery effectiveness and sustainability.

Fourth, he established a routine, affordable way to monitor progress. Halim’s team asked for regular reports from the centres and ranked their performance from top to bottom based how many members signed up for the Internet services, the number of training programs as well as community engagements. But that wasn’t enough. During weekends, Halim traveled sometime by boat or four wheel drive to rural spots such as Song (an Iban village up the Rejang River) or Tambunan (in Sabah’s Crocker Range) so he could see what’s going on. “For rural projects, you need a physical presence,” he said.

Fifth, he used role models to analyse and reinforce success. Halim asked the managers who ran successful rural broadband centres to share their experiences of how they mobilised community support.

The foundation Halim built has become sustainable and scalable over the long term. Close to a decade after Halim retired as Secretary General, hundreds of rural broadband sites have sprouted throughout the country, including 284 centres set up by Telekom Malaysia so far.

 

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