Most students find exams a tough enough challenge to mount. But one undergraduate in Sabah, Malaysia, had to literally scale a tree so she could access internet to take her online test. 18-year-old Veveonah Mosibin’s plight made clear the need for Malaysia to plug its digital gaps.

Malaysia is gearing up for a nationwide 5G rollout, but it will first need to lay a firm foundation for its networks. “Before you run, you need to do a little bit of warm up. We know that 5G is going to be a marathon,” says Dr Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek, Chairman of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

Fadhlullah shares Malaysia’s plans to improve connectivity and close the digital divide.

Mapping Malaysia’s connectivity


“We know that 5G is going to be a marathon.”

Malaysia had previously drafted a five-year plan to develop its network infrastructure, but that was “thrown out the window” when Covid-19 hit, Fadhlullah says. The demand for services has changed tremendously, so MCMC had to accelerate its plans.

Earlier this year, industry and government agencies came up with a new national digital infrastructure plan, known as Jendela. This details the country’s approach to prepare for 5G.

The country aims to ramp up wireless broadband speeds from the current 25Mbps to 100 Mbps. It also plans to achieve 100 per cent 4G coverage in populated areas. Strengthening the 4G foundation is important for Malaysia’s 5G rollout, Fadhlullah notes.

The plan includes a network infrastructure tracker, which maps out where the population and existing infrastructure are. Before, there was no central source of information to find out which areas were underserved in terms of coverage and speed. This made it difficult for authorities to identify and help problem areas, according to the Jendela report.

The Jendela map will also ensure telcos are on track to meeting Malaysia’s goals, Fadhlullah shares. Service providers have to give regular updates about their network capacities on the dashboard. This information has to be verified by the CEO, and can be easily checked by MCMC.

The map will be connected to a customer complaints system, so service providers can attend to them quickly. “You’re putting things very transparently on a dashboard that people can then have access to,” he explains.

Improve nationwide planning

The Jendela map can help other government agencies as well, Fadhlullah says. For instance, the map would show how many schools are already connected to fibre networks. The Ministry of Education would then know which schools to prioritise when planning infrastructure upgrades.

The Ministry could also use this information to better plan lesson delivery. Right now, schools across Malaysia have the same ratio of online to face-to-face lessons. The Ministry could plan to have less online content for schools with poorer access to the Internet, as opposed to the “one size fits all” approach today, he explains.

The tourism industry could make good use of the map too. Investors would know where to build hotels, and eco-trails can be planned in places with connectivity for safety, he notes.

Close the digital divide

Closing the country’s digital divide is a priority for MCMC. It will tackle the rural and urban divides differently, says Fadhlullah.

The challenge for rural areas is geographical, he explains. MCMC will map out where to bring infrastructure out to, and provide telcos with funding to build networks in these non-commercially viable areas.

In urban areas, infrastructure is highly available, but the cost of accessing these services can be a barrier, Fadhlullah shares. MCMC will address this with internet centres, which serve as a “one stop area for access”. These centres provide devices for going online, and anyone within a 100m radius would get free wifi.

The agency plans to increase the number of internet centres to 1100. “We would be able to have such centres accessible within a five kilometer radius of each other,” he says.

Train entrepreneurs

The internet centres serve another important function: building up the nation’s digital entrepreneurs. “They provide programmes for people to learn about the internet and how to use that knowledge to generate income,” explains Fadhlullah.

The vision is to build an “economic microcosm” around each centre, he says. MCMC oversees telecommunications, broadcast and courier services, all of which are important to e-commerce, he points out. “We will amalgamate all those services to be made available within the internet centre.”

The centres have trained more than 150,000 people to date, and 20,000 of those are active entrepreneurs. Some of them have done so well that they have opened up physical shops, Fadhlullah shares. “We think that is a good opportunity because in many countries, it is actually the entrepreneurs that make up the robustness of a country,” he says.

Implementing 5G is quite the tall order. Malaysia is working to build a strong base for its networks, and is set to close the digital divide, improve public sector planning, and boost the digital economy.