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Half of Malaysians experience poor internet connectivity as digital divide hampers 5G goals

About half of Malaysia’s over 30,000 telecommunications towers are concentrated in just four of the country’s 13 states — Selangor and Penang, the country’s two most industrialised states, along with Negeri Sembilan and Perak — along the peninsula’s west coast, EdgePoint CEO Suresh Sidhu told This Week in Asia.

“When the government says there’s a communications deficit in Malaysia, there is and it’s pretty large,” Suresh said.

Malaysia’s 5G network is rated as among the fastest globally by network intelligence firm Ookla. It has so far reached 80.5 per cent coverage of populated areas and over 11 million subscribers as of February, according to government data.

The government has promised to ensure half of the country’s rural areas will be covered by the 5G network, which it has said will boost productivity and growth.

But overall connection is patchy across the region, where transmission towers are concentrated in centres of commerce and industry, areas where tower infrastructure firms — also known as towercos — and network operators can earn the most.

This leaves significant segments of Southeast Asia’s 675 million residents living in rural areas with slow and unreliable internet, exacerbating a digital and economic divide as urban centres race ahead at speeds matching their gigabits of data access.

Poor internet connection curbs progress across society. For rural students, it means limited access to learning resources that governments are placing online. For businesses aiming to expand their market presence, weak connectivity in rural areas is a major hindrance.

Collectively, he estimated the annual spending on tower leases across the three countries at between US$2 billion to US$3 billion, with plenty of scope for towercos