Tapping into Telecommunications

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Brunei Darussalam is moving forward to put the last pieces in place to complete its communications infrastructure, in order to provide a uniformly fast and efficient service via all platforms.

Electronic communications mediums such as telephony – both fixed and mobile – along with the internet, television and other forms were identified as vital components for growth under the 2007-12 National Development Plan (RKN): the information and communications technology (ICT) being allocated around $1bn to bolster the sector.

One of the crucial pieces fell into place late last year when testing was completed on the Asia America Gateway (AAG), the new 20,000-km high-bandwidth optical fibre submarine cable linking the US with the Asian region, including Brunei Darussalam. Set to begin commercial operations early in the new year, the AAG will connect 10 different locations in eight countries across the Asia Pacific region, improve high bandwidth delivery between Asia and the US, as well as diversify the existing information carrying routes and increase capacity.

Of the project's $500m budget, Brunei Darussalam contributed $40m, $30m of which came from the government and $5m each from the Sultanate's two commercial telecommunications services providers, Telekom Brunei Berhad and the DST Group. A joint venture company, the Brunei International Gateway (BIG), was established in mid-2009 to lead the project in Brunei Darussalam, manage cable services and sell the capacity to local and foreign telecommunication operators.

According to the Ministry of Communications, the new cable system will provide a capacity of up to 1.92 terabits per second of data bandwidth, enough to meet the increasing demand for faster and more reliable internet, telephonic video and other multimedia services. Importantly, the AAG is intended to improve e-commerce traffic and support the state's programme to promote e-government initiatives.

The AAG is a crucial cog in plans by the Brunei Economic Development Board (BEDB) to promote the country as a technology and information storage centre, based on a $50 to $100m facility it is establishing that will offer data storage space and other specialised IT services to domestic and international clients.

With the AAG fully operational, Brunei Darussalam would be linked to the outside world by two cables. This additional capacity in its communications system mean that there is sufficient redundancy to support a data centre, according to Vincent Cheong, the BEDB's chief executive officer.

"It is too early to say when we are planning to launch the data centre as we are still in the early stages of speaking with investors about it, but it will most definitely be after the cable network is launched in Brunei Darussalam," he said in an interview with local media in late December.

One more piece finalised soon, with officials currently working to prepare a shortlist of qualified candidates from the 19 companies that have expressed interest in providing consultancy services to develop the country's Broadband Strategic Plan, a key plank in the Sultanate's communications platform.

Central to the plan is the connecting of every home with fibre optic cables, giving residents faster internet connection and in turn allowing service providers to reach clients more quickly.

While Brunei Darussalam already has 100% mobile phone penetration, with most having access to the internet, not all homes are linked to the internet, with the fibre optic plan aiming to ensure delivery of telephone, television and internet services to all residences, however remote.

When finalised in the first months of this year, the winning bidder in the tender will be charged with putting forward options for the building of infrastructure, setting out the required investment and proposing management and operational guidelines, as well as suggesting how Brunei Darussalam's telecommunications industry could directly benefit through areas such as local content development.

As well as improving the physical infrastructure and the planning regime, the Sultanate has already come a long way in reforming the regulatory and management structure of the communications sector, according to Pengiran Haji Md Zain, the chief executive of Brunei Darussalam's Authority for Info-communications Technology Industry, the state body tasked with regulating the telecommunications industry and developing the ICT sector.

"From a monopolistic environment where telecommunications services were provided by one government department and like so many other countries also functioning as the regulator, we have corporatised this department, privatised some of the services, created a separate regulator and liberalised the market," he told delegates attending a seminar on the telecommunications industry in mid-December.

Having opened up the market, put in place most of the requirements of a modern telecommunications sector and fast tracking the remaining links in the chain, Brunei Darussalam's communication industry is set to move into higher value-added services that will be supported by improved communications infrastructure.

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