Rural areas of Brunei Darussalam, which have long faced problems with information and communications technology (ICT) services, are set to benefit from a move to align the Sultanate’s bandwidth with that of its regional neighbours.
The decision to replace mobile frequency bands comes as the Sultanate prepares to hand out 4G long-term evolution (LTE) licences. However, despite the wave of activity taking place across the telecoms sector, there are concerns that the joint roaming agreement could fail to produce results for the country, unless tariffs are revised downwards to levels nearer those of its regional peers.
Brunei Darussalam, together with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, sealed an agreement on June 19 to align itself with the Asia Pacific Telecommunity’s 700 MHz band plan. The deal will facilitate international roaming among networks, while also making it easier for providers to meet rising demand for mobile broadband.
The GSMA, an international association of mobile operators and related companies, welcomed the move, saying it sent a “positive signal to the wider mobile ecosystem in the Asia Pacific region”.
“The 700MHz band is ideally suited to provide extended mobile broadband coverage to rural and remote areas where fixed infrastructure is often unavailable and also has ideal characteristics to improve indoor coverage in saturated urban areas,” the association commented.
The Authority for Info-communications Technology and Industry of Brunei Darussalam (AITI), the industry regulator, echoed the association’s comments, telling local media that the plan would enable the Sultanate to offer wider coverage and better in-building penetration.
“This significantly reduces the cost of building and maintaining mobile networks over large areas, for example, by reducing the number of base stations required to service a large area compared to providing a similar service using higher frequency bands,” the AITI told the local media.
The government says 4G LTE licences will pave the way for the deployment and commercialisation of next-generation mobile broadband services. In April, a Bruneian official quoted by a Chinese newspaper said an open tender for the licences would be conducted once signal towers were completed.
More recently, in late June, the minister of communications said the licences would be awarded “soon”. Networks are expected to deploy the service commercially three to six months after the licences are awarded. At least 27 signal towers are thought to be required to support 4G services.
The increase in mobile broadband provision is timely. Last September, telecoms firm DSTCom revealed that in the first eight months of 2012, data usage increased 70% over the same period in 2011. Ericsson, meanwhile, estimated that up to 80% of new activations in the Sultanate last year were smart phones.
However, a survey conducted this year suggested that the Sultanate’s users were probably paying too much for data services. The 2013 edition of the Global Information Technology Report, released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in April, found that Brunei Darussalam had the highest tariffs for telecommunications services in ASEAN, while trailing some of its regional neighbours when it came to internet connection speed.
In the report, the Sultanate placed 135th out of 144 countries for overall affordability, while ranking 110th for cellular tariffs, 120th for fixed broadband prices and 131st for internet and telephony competition. Charges averaged $0.45 per minute for mobile calls and $81.20 per month for wired broadband.
Vietnam had the lowest tariffs for telecommunications services in the regional bloc, placing 38th on the list, followed by Indonesia, which ranked 39th. Thailand came 45th.
Brunei Darussalam was able to take some positives from the report. The country placed second in the region for use of virtual social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, behind Singapore. The Sultanate also had the third-lowest level of software piracy among ASEAN countries.
However, the country still faces challenges in its bid to bridge the long-standing digital divide that separates urban and rural areas. In the past, the minister of communications, Pehin Dato Seri Setia Awang Hj Abdullah, acknowledged that bringing services in rural areas, such as Temburong, up to the standard of those in well-connected districts, was “a challenge”. The government is keen to make ICT a key component of its efforts to improve the lives of people outside urban areas, in particular by generating new employment opportunities.
In June, at an event during which industry giant, Google, revealed plans to beam the internet from giant balloons to rural parts of Asia, its regional chief spoke of the project’s economic potential.
“[It’s] devastating that only a tiny fraction of small and medium-sized enterprises all across Asia are online right now,” Karim Temsamani, Google’s head of Asia Pacific, said at the Communicasia conference in Singapore.
Aligning the bandwidth and introducing 4G coverage are likely be beneficial for small businesses in rural areas long term. In the meantime, however, the country may need to consider introducing other measures aimed at helping Bruneian ventures remain competitive when connected.