Driving to the small public Internet center in Semenyih, Malaysia from nearby Cyberjaya is to pass from one side of the digital divide to the other. Cyberjaya was carved out of a palm oil plantation in 1997 to become Malaysia’s first “cybercity.” It forms the heart of the nation’s “Multimedia Super Corridor,” a special economic zone for high-tech businesses. Just 32 kilometers (20 miles) away in the agricultural town of Semenyih, students have laptops but no Internet in their classrooms.
As Malaysia stretches to place itself among the world’s global economic leaders, its citizens straddle broad digital extremes. At both ends, the federal government is carefully orchestrating an ambitious plan for digital growth. Since 2010, Malaysia’s leaders have invested heavily in technology, among other sectors, to land itself in the elite upper echelon of global economies.
Though it’s grabbed fewer headlines than Cyberjaya, a massive public Internet project led by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission is a key part of this strategy. Quietly, the government has installed 674 public Internet centers since 2007 and plans to finish another 165 by the end of this year.
This network is branded as 1Malaysia Internet Centres to coincide with a nationwide campaign of unity. Each center has 20 computers. The government provides the facility and pays service providers to install equipment, hire managers, and bring it online.
In Semenyih, the center operates from a modest one-story building next to those Internet-less local schools. Guests remove their shoes at the door, where rules including “No gambling” and “No pornography” are clearly posted. During a visit last week, two women wearing hijabs leaned close and laughed at a shared terminal along one side of a brightly colored room. Atop stools against the opposite wall, two young boys in headphones clicked through YouTube videos.
Policymakers see places like Semenyih as an opportunity to improve digital literacy and expand homegrown industries. The government offers free training for entrepreneurs on weekends. Anwar Bin Masood, a manager at the Semenyih center, says local women who weave baskets, mats, and jewelry have begun to sell their wares online.
Students and seniors receive one free hour of access each day, while others pay a small fee to log on. If they become members, the service is cheaper. So far, 475 of the 2,300 people who live in Semenyih have signed up since it opened in 2014. About 65 percent of the people who log on are students. The oldest member is 68 years old.
To further improve access, MCMC has developed a second program called WiFi Komuniti to distribute the Internet from each center to the surrounding community. The agency uses a hub-and-spoke model to transmit Wi-Fi around the clock to a few sites within 5 kilometers of a center, which in turn re-broadcast it to homes within a 250-meter range.
In Semenyih, one of these access points (which is basically three routers strapped to a pole) is erected just outside an open-air cafe littered with plastic chairs for surfers to linger. A signature blue sign designates it as part of an official Pusat Internet 1Malaysia (or PI1M), or 1Malaysia Internet Center in Malay.
Both projects are continually revised as leaders figure out how to best serve their many new users. Coordinators recently reduced the number of spokes in the WiFi Komuniti model from five to three, to boost data speeds from 2 Mbps to 4 Mbps. Meanwhile, users at the hubs enjoy 8 Mbps speeds, and that bandwidth is re-allocated to the spokes once the centers close each night.
There are some persistent challenges. Malaysia’s lush vegetation and incessant rain absorb radio signals and generates greater than normal losses, says Siva Karan of local service provider Maxis. The company works around this by caching some websites on a local server and keeping Wi-Fi access points, Internet centers, and microwave towers that provide service within easy sight of each other.
Another major obstacle MCMC has faced is securing a reliable power supply for centers in remote areas. Also, maintenance is a high hurdle. There are 98 centers in the largely wild state of Sarawak on Borneo, more than in any other state; rotating the computers and printers there through quarterly maintenance checks is expensive.
Still, residents have welcomed the centers, and the MCMC office fields many requests from community members who want one in their town. “We can say that the 1Malaysia Centers are the one most successful project ever implemented in MCMC,” Nor Azhar Hassan, head of the infrastructure division, says.
Despite their popularity, the centers were never meant to be a permanent solution to the lack of connectivity in places such as Semenyih. MCMC hopes the projects will encourage more people to sign up for service to their homes, and persuade companies to expand infrastructure there.
“At the moment, we think of the Internet centers as a change agent,” Hassan says. “This is not meant to be a total solution.” To achieve those long-term goals, the government has built 1,000 towers and industry has installed 10,000 since 2010. Another 700 are in progress.
Hassan and his colleagues share anecdotes about the positive impact Malaysia’s Internet centers have had on residents. However, Araba Sey, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Information School, says it’s difficult to assess what, if any, boost public Internet centers such as these actually bring to communities or countries. “The question of social and economic impact is still up in the air,” she says.
In Semenyih, the most common online activity is checking social media. That’s meaningful to users, of course, but might not further Malaysia’s economic goals as much as its funders had hoped.
This quandary has run aground similar projects in other countries, which Sey says inevitably lose public funding and can’t garner enough commercial support to stay afloat. Malaysia’s Internet centers are currently funded through the nation’s Universal Service Provision until 2020.
“We shouldn’t be looking for these short term and very direct impacts,” Sey says. “You can't prescribe what specifically will happen and how it will happen and when it will happen. If you’re trying to do that, you’re missing the point.”
For now, Malaysia remains on track to achieve its goal of being recognized by the World Bank as a high-income nation (those achieving a gross national income of US $12,736 per capita) by 2020 (even while its prime minister is embroiled in a US $1 billion corruption scandal).
Back in the pair of matching towers that now house the MCMC offices in Cyberjaya, Zefe Fazilah, a deputy director for project coordination, says the strategy is working from their perspective. (The agency was unable to provide an estimate for the total cost of the public Internet initiative to date.)
They’ve heard from dozens of entrepreneurs who have expanded their reach through the centers, including one seaweed farmer who went from making RM400 to RM20,000 a month. Industry partners also seem enthused by the demand the project has drummed up in remote corners of the country.
Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings Institution, believes Malaysia will eventually realize the benefits it seeks from its investment. He says the economic case for Internet access has been demonstrated in fishing villages and agricultural regions around the globe.
Nearby to MCMC, construction teams busily convert a vast tract of land the size of 120 football fields to “CCC” or Cyberjaya City Center. Once complete, the RM11 billion project will feature wireless sensors for virtually every possible purpose, including a “social noise meter.” One way or another, Malaysia remains determined to forge its digital destiny.