Should smaller towns be marginalized?

Last month, my missus and I took a vacation in Kuantan, a coastal town about 350 kilometers east of Kuala Lumpur.Kuantan, a typical sea town, boasts of some of the best beaches in the east coast and is famed for white sandy beaches along an area known as Cherating.
Written by Edwin Yapp, Contributor

Last month, my missus and I took a vacation in Kuantan, a coastal town about 350 kilometers east of Kuala Lumpur.

Kuantan, a typical sea town, boasts of some of the best beaches in the east coast and is famed for white sandy beaches along an area known as Cherating.

Aiming to rejuvenate myself by just lazing around the beach, enjoying the slow pace of life and sampling some good seafood, I found myself not being able to tear myself away from the Internet, especially my iPhone.

What made it worse was the fact that I was also armed with not one, but two mobile broadband dongles that I had brought along to enable me to surf the Net on my laptop.

Why in the world would I want to access the Internet while on holiday is a topic to be discussed another day but the point is that being a news junkie, I had to try and access the Internet wherever I went.

Being an engineer in my former professional life and wanting to be as objective as I could as a journalist, I tested two mobile service provider's wireless services respectively and found both the experiences to be far from satisfactory.

Although I was staying in what many would consider a suburban to rural landscape, I was still surprised to find that the service coverage was marginal at best. As a result, connection to the Web was constantly interrupted, and when connections were on, speeds were terribly slow.

It got me thinking about how we folks who live in big cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, take for granted the coverage provided by the wireless service providers when the same can't be said of smaller, suburban to rural towns.

A good buddy of mine who currently resides in Taman Perling, Johor Bahru, occasionally laments to me about how service providers--wireless or otherwise--normally only launch their services in big cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bahru, and only in populated downtown areas.

Noting that many of them seem to bypass fringe areas, like Taman Perling, but still considered to be part of a city's geographical limits, he wonders why service providers would not want to cover these areas in the first place, making him feel quite marginalized as a subscriber.

When I was working in one of these companies rolling out the mobile network in Malaysia, we used to plan our activities based on what is known as a "growth and capacity plan".

Essentially an educated guesstimate that is based on traffic usage pattern of where we believed our subscribers were using their cellphones most of the time, we would add new base stations to that locality accordingly.

In areas where we noticed traffic approaching 70 percent of its full capacity, we would then identify new areas to add new cells to so that cellphone traffic could be dispersed based on equitability.

These planned areas invariably would be based around commercial areas, such as shopping complexes, offices, and publically accessed areas, such as highways, restaurants, parks and other local tourist attractions.

That was in the 1990s, when the network was still nascent and coverage still limited.

I'm not sure how our service providers are planning now but one thing I'm still fairly certain of: service providers today will likely only roll out coverage in areas they believe are likely to pay for themselves.

Put simply, if they build a base station in a certain locality, they would expect the traffic generated from that base station to pay for the cost of putting up the site.

However, as I ponder on this more, I wonder if this should be the way forward for service providers and their respective rollout strategies.

On the one hand, service providers today tell us via their advertisements and promotions that cellphone services today are not just for voice calls and SMSes, and are in fact inextricably linked to more advanced services such as access to the mobile Internet and rich-media applications via smartphones like BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone.

But if service rollout is only going to be confined to the larger cities, especially when new services are launched, and not in surburban and rural towns, the vision to spread that same message is going to remain a pipedream.

Service providers will no doubt argue that they would need to balance their business plans based on the economics of supply and demand. Also, they often justify their plans based on the fact that the most likely areas that would adopt advanced services would be confined to bigger cities.

While this argument is to date still tenable, it does beg the question as to whether service providers need to reexamine if this still applies now and in the near future, especially so when the lines between basic wireless voice services and mobile Internet access are being blurred on a daily basis.

The fact is that there are pockets of people, at the very least in suburban areas, who have the disposal income and spending power and want advanced services, and are willing to pay for them but just happen to reside in out-of-city borders.

My friend in Taman Perling is certainly one of them and believes that there are more people like himself all over Malaysia who are willing to fork out a little more per month to get advanced wireless services.

But as things stand, he and the rest like him, can't help but feel marginalized because of the current way service providers target their markets.

So which will be the first service provider in Malaysia who would dare put the cart before the horse, and address the demand in the fringe market, I wonder?

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