The government of Brunei Darussalam has taken the initiative with regards to fostering a strong technology sector in the Sultanate. The government is mindful of technology’s potential to create value for the country’s economy and to ensure social development for its citizens. To date, government officials, in concert with the private sector, have initiated various strategic ICT infrastructure projects, reviews of governance with technology as a solution and ICT consolidation for the efficient running of government as well as the delivery of e-services to citizens.
These undertakings are fully aligned with the goals set out in the strategic vision, Wawasan Brunei 2035, which charts a course toward a “smart society” composed of a highly skilled work force in a country with dynamic and sustainable economic growth.
History Of Networking
In the early 1970s financial, petrochemical and telecoms firms based in the Sultanate began to move towards a digital society by leveraging technological solutions, such as data processing, to automate their business operations. To ensure the nascent sector had the support necessary to ensure its growth, the National Information Technology Council (BIT Council) was formed in 2000 to drive the sector’s development. The BIT Council oversaw the formation of the sector regulator, the Authority for Info-communications Technology Industry of Brunei Darussalam (AITI) in 2003. AITI’s current responsibilities range from monitoring, regulating, licensing and managing competition to maintaining the national radio frequency spectrum and developing the Sultanate’s ICT sector.
In 2004 the Ministry of Communications (MoC) was appointed to be the lead agency for the EG Bandwidth Service Project, an e-government initiative aimed at networking government ministries that has since been replaced by the “One Government Network”. In 2006 the Department of Telecommunications became a separate entity from the MoC in order to become Telekom Brunei (TelBru), which effectively became the country’s IT and telecoms service provider for the public and private sectors.
With the restructuring in place, the E-Government National Centre (EGNC) was formed and the Broadcasting Act was transferred to the MoC in 2008. In 2010 the EGNC became the formal Chief Information Officer for the government, and in 2014 the National Broadband Policy and the ePayment Gateway System were launched – all of which form the foundation of the current state of the Sultanate’s ICT sector. As evidenced by these decisions, the government has been closely involved in the establishment and growth of the ICT sector, especially with regard to building out public governmental networks. As a result, the small but important private sector has traditionally relied on public-sector grants and contracts.
Brunei Darussalam ranked number 71 out of 167 countries in the UN International Telecommunication Union 2015 ICT Development Index, which was 18 rankings down from its 2010 score. Meanwhile, the ICT industry’s contribution to GDP was estimated at 1.8% of the total in 2015. In fiscal year 2014/15, ICT-related expenditures were allocated BN$31.5m ($22.4m), or 2.7%, of the development budget of BN$1.2bn ($853.8m). For the same period, the MoC was allocated BN$84m ($59.8m).
According to statistics from the AITI, fixed broadband subscriptions increased from 20,742 in 2012 to 30,529 in 2014, while mobile internet use has actually decreased since its peak in 2012. The number of subscribers that year was 31,393, but by 2014 this had dropped to 26,467. This bucks trends around the world: typically as smartphone use becomes more widespread, accessing the internet via mobile phone generally overtakes access by fixed-line internet. However, despite the recent drop in subscribers, mobile internet use is expected to grow, with the number of users nearly doubling from 13,565 in 2008 to 26,467 in 2014. As of 2014 nearly half of internet users in the country use their phone to access the internet, with fixed broadband subscribers outnumbering mobile internet users by about 4000. The AITI put mobile penetration at 114% in 2014, while 83% of households had a computer.
Building Out Infrastructure
Established in 1995, Primatel Communications has built much of the Sultanate’s IT infrastructure. Among its numerous government and private-sector projects, Primatel has implemented a nationwide synchronous digital hierarchy backbone and jump-started microwave transmissions in the country. In 1999 Primatel partnered with Jabatan Telekom Brunei in a joint venture to provide ADSL high-speed internet access. Primatel now specialises in ICT, secured communications systems and system integration.
Also contributing to the Sultanate’s infrastructure build-out is TelBru’s broadband project, fibre-to the-home (FTTH). Launched in 2010, FTTH aims to bring fibre-optic connections directly into Brunei Darussalam’s homes, allowing for more bandwidth and faster delivery speeds. Bridging the digital divide in the Sultanate by implementing FTTH has been a flagship project for TelBru, which has so far achieved 40% of its plan to roll out FTTH. An estimated 10,000 homes are scheduled to be connected to the broadband service in 2017, and the MoC has an overall target of making 45,000 FTTH connections by 2017. With more than 27,000 FTTH connections made as of May 2015, the FTTH roll-out plans were on track to hit the 2017 target, according to Edwin Lim, head of TelBru’s FTTH implementation team.
The complex programme was split into two phases. The first phase, lasting from 2010 to 2013, involved laying fibre infrastructure for Central Bandar Seri Begawan, Gadong and Madang, followed by making the FTTH connections themselves. In phase two, the project will expand into the less-populated districts of Brunei Darussalam where existing infrastructure is limited. TelBru’s innovative solutions for dealing with such conditions include deploying multi-service access nodes and fibre-to-the-cabinet, with the last mile of existing copper infrastructure delivering the FTTH service. For its part, TelBru began installing a system of Wi-Fi service points around the country in December 2015 as a first step in extending its business away from its reliance on fixed-line solutions and towards expansion into the wireless segment. The service enables users who log into the hotspots to acquire their own connections, reducing service congestion. In a related move, aimed at lowering the cost of entry and balancing data consumption among users, TelBru also reduced its prices for broadband internet service by as much as 40% in 2015.
Much work has been undertaken on the expansion of international fibre-optic connections via undersea cables. This is overseen and managed by Brunei International Gateway (BIG), a joint-venture company between the government, TelBru and DST Group. In addition to monetising the cables’ capacities, BIG also acts as an investment holding and trading company that participates in the operation of submarine cable projects. Since in 2009, the company has managed the Sultanate’s investment and membership in two undersea cabling systems.
One such cable is the Asia-America Gateway (AAG), a 20,000-km high-bandwidth fibre optic submarine cable system linking South-east Asia with the US via Hawaii and Guam, with tributaries into Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand. AAG boasts a high degree of interconnectivity and high-bandwidth systems that support the demand for voice, data and video traffic between South-east Asia and the US using dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) technologies.
In its US to Hawaii and Hong Kong to South-east Asia spans, AAG can deliver an initial design capacity of up to 2.88 terabits per second (Tbps), while in its Hawaii to Hong Kong span, AAG is capable of delivering of 1.9 Tbps. BIG is also part of a consortium that owns and operates the South-east Asia Japan Cable (SJC), a submarine cable system inaugurated in 2013. With landing stations in Brunei Darussalam, the Philippines, Singapore, Japan, China and Hong Kong, the 8986-km SJC comprises six fibre pairs deploying 40G submarine line terminal equipment and optical add-drop multiplex branching technologies. The SJC network had an initial design capacity of 28 Tbps, which was recently upgraded in November 2015 with new 100G-DWDM-technology.
The oldest cable connecting the Sultanate to other cable networks at 39 international landing points in South-east Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Western Europe is the 39,000-km SEA-ME-WE 3, managed and operated by TelBru. Completed in 2000, its older design limits its speed to 655 Mbps. In addition to these three cables, regional interconnectivity is set to be further strengthened by a Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area submarine fibre-optic cable and a Labuan-Brunei Submarine Cable (LBC). The LBC is a 52km-submarine-cable system connecting Labuan and Brunei. It consists of 12 fibre pairs, with an initial design capacity of up to 3.36 Tbps. The cable, which is owned by Common Towers Technologies of Sabah, will provide alternative and redundancy routes for Sabah, as well as Labuan into Brunei, and onwards to the rest of the connected world, via BIG’s international cable network. The $150m, 5092-km BEST Cable Project will add additional capacity and redundancy to the region’s telecoms sectors. BEST will traverse Brunei Darussalam, Sabah, Mindanao, Kalimantan and link to other ASEAN countries as well as Guam and the US. The project is being carried out by BESTC able, a consortium composed of Sabah Economic Development Communication and Mindanao’s EA Trilink. BIG will be the implementing agency and cable landing party in Brunei Darussalam for these new cable systems, which enhance the country’s position as a major regional communications centre.
Smart National Strategy
To achieve its goal of becoming a technologically advanced nation by 2035, Brunei Darussalam has initiated a national digital strategy that runs from 2016 to 2020. Intended to guide public-sector ICT investment during the four-year period, the National ICT White Paper for Brunei Darussalam: National Digital Strategy 2016-20 capitalises on the technological foundation already laid by the government and other stakeholders, while recommending new strategies to adapt to current and future requirements.
The National Digital Strategy envisions ICT sector transformation under six guiding principles: top-down design, effective centralisation, demonstrable success, citizen centricity, mobility first and context awareness. The expected outcomes for this strategy are for the economy to become more vibrant and powered by the ICT sector, with ICT-smart citizens participating in an efficient and connected nation. The main stakeholders of this strategy are the regulator, AITI, along with the MoC, the Brunei Economic Development Board and the Department of Economic Planning and Development. The start-up incubator programme iCentre, established to develop entrepreneurship, technology and innovation in partnership with industry partners, will have a stake in the strategy, as will the BIT Council, which promotes the growth of IT-linked businesses and services.
While the MoC fine-tunes its internal network systems and works on implementing the National Digital Strategy, many non-emergency services are funnelled through the Talian Darussalam 123 national call centre, a joint venture with TelBru that offers citizens around-the-clock access to governmental and general information. Clients include the Ministry of Development, Public Service Commission (PSC) Recruitment and the e-government portal, e-Darussalam. The one-stop portal for government services, e-Darussalam, has been particularly successful, according to a government official who told OBG that as of early 2016 there were more than 50,000 accounts, up from 10,000 previously. In addition, the official said, PSC Recruitment has also seen excellent take-up. It organises labour licences, quotas, road tax renewals and drivers’ licenses.
The Sultanate’s telecoms sector has been in a state of expansion and reorganisation for the past few years as the two operators, DST Communications and Progresif Cellular (PCSB), mark out their respective niches. The newest operator, PCSB, is starting to build a customer base. In 2014 TelBru sold its financially struggling subsidiary B-Mobile to investment company Darussalam Assets, which had been established by the Ministry of Finance to manage the government’s investments in affiliate companies. Darussalam Assets rebranded B-Mobile as Progresif Cellular (PCSB). PCSB has since been overhauled, with changes including a completely rebuilt network with 4G-capable core and base stations. It plans to add 82 more base stations that will equate to a 25% increase in coverage. In February 2016 PCSB applied to regulator AITI for permission to launch 4G LTE services by as soon as mid-2016. TelBru is supplying microwave and fibre-optics for the 4G rollout. The older operator, DST Communications is owned by Datastream Technology, which comprises a diverse group of companies providing mobile services, broadband, content and broadcasting to subscribers.
Although the government has been actively encouraging local ICT firms to partner with foreign companies and explore foreign opportunities for business, they currently remain dependent on government ICT contracts for their core business. Change is urgently needed because, as the country strives to balance its economy, these contracts are likely to become less frequent and less profitable.
AITI’s new regulations will make for a more competitive business environment for telcoms companies in Brunei Darussalam. Nonetheless, with a highly ICT-savvy population and a willingness by government and citizenry alike to integrate the latest trends into daily home and business life, the Sultanate may well emerge the stronger for these current challenges.
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