In his 2015 budget speech, Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged to invest RM2.7bn ($821.34m) over three years to build 1000 new telecoms towers nationwide and lay undersea cables between Peninsular Malaysia and the eastern states. This funding represents the second phase of the High-Speed Broadband project (HSSB), which was first announced a year previously. This phase will see more powerful broadband services rolled out in areas where this will have a high economic impact, such as state capitals and major towns. The HSBB programme is also funded through the Universal Service Provision (USP) Fund, which is administered by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). This fund promotes equal access to ICT infrastructure, particularly in underpenetrated markets and areas that are not considered economically viable by commercial telecoms firms. Many of these underpenetrated markets are located in rural and underserved areas, of which Sarawak has a large number.
IN THE WORKS: A separate project to provide lower-speed communication services to rural areas is also under way. The radio access network (RAN) Sharing Time 3 Phase 3 project, also known as the T3E project, administered by MCMC via the USP Fund, will see towers constructed over three years and the provision of a minimum of 2G for voice and 3G for data services to rural areas. The technology to be used is based on the single RAN concept, in which a collection of network operators is given access to the same equipment for the provision of services.
The T3E project is expected to be worth around RM800m ($243.36m) and is separated into two phases. The first phase will see the construction of several towers and new infrastructure, and the second phase will include the installation of RAN-sharing equipment and electronics.
BRANCHING OUT: In April 2014 the MCMC announced the first phase of the tender, for 400 towers, of which Sarawak was allocated 149 towers. These are set to boost internet and mobile voice accessibility in the state’s rural areas. As a result, telecoms coverage in Sarawak is expected to rise to 90% in 2015, according to Ahmad Shabery Cheek, the national minister for communications and multimedia.
“This will enable more rural folks in isolated areas of the Sibu, Kapit, Miri, and Sarikei divisions, as well as those in surrounding areas, to enjoy better cellular coverage and internet services,” Adimam Ajem, director of the MCMC, said after the announcement of the tender. Following on this, in December 2014 MCMC revealed it had awarded a RM88.57m ($26.94m) contract to RED tone Marketing to build, operate and maintain RAN infrastructure in rural areas in Sarawak and Johor. The state’s 149 communication towers were expected to be completed in 2015, according to statements made to local press by Adiman, who also noted that the new towers would supplement Sarawak’s previous total of 900. Tenders for an additional 85 towers had not yet been issued as of early March 2015.
LEADING THE PACK: One of the frontrunners in the bid to build the new towers is likely to be local firm Sacofa, which is 85%-owned by the Sarawak state government and 15% owned by Celcom Axiata. Sacofa is the preferred partner for developing telecoms towers in Sarawak until 2022. However, the bidding process appears to be open to firms in the state apart from Sacofa. Instacom Group – east Malaysia’s largest tower construction contractor, with 1200 towers built under T3E’s first phase – could be a potential competitor or partner for the project.
No matter which company is awarded the contracts in the future, it looks as if the delay is nearly over for rural Sarawakians who have long been waiting for better voice and broadband services. As Anne Kung, CEO of Instacom, told The Borneo Post, her company hopes the MCMC will “expedite the roll-out of the balance [of the] towers as telecommunication services today is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.”
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