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ASEAN spectrum crush hampers broadband rush: Report

The slow pace of mobile network spectrum allocation in many south-east Asian countries is leading to a delay in broadband implementation in the region, according to a new report by The Economist Intelligence Unit.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor on

Mobile broadband is a quick way for countries to improve broadband access while minimising the costs of rolling out fixed-line networks, but the conversion of spectrum allocations — a necessary step for high-speed access — is often slow, leading to a delay in implementation, according to a new report by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

The Future of Broadband in South-East Asia report, commissioned by Huawei, said that for members of the Alliance of South East Asian Countries (ASEAN) where successful broadband policies are in place, such as Singapore, limited bandwidth for data poses an emerging challenge — highlighting the continued importance of fixed-broadband networks to supplement increasingly crowded mobile networks.

"The big constraint for developing countries in building out mobile broadband is usually insufficient spectrum," said independent IT consultant and former ITU consultant Michael Minges in the report.

Additionally, employing mobile technology in order to establish a faster rate of broadband coverage is not a "silver bullet", the report said, with executive director at the Alliance for Affordable Internet Sonia Jorge saying that "mobile broadband cannot exist in a reliable way without strong fixed networks; you have to develop both".

The report also said that there was unanimous agreement that widespread broadband access is necessary to compete globally and to spur economic opportunities locally. Despite that, there are great differences in the level of broadband planning and implementation across ASEAN, where even market leaders face challenges in achieving greater coverage and uptake.

"In countries where development is further along, such as Singapore and Malaysia, there is a recognition that much remains to be done in terms of bridging various digital divides, both those created by lack of access to fast connections and those resulting from no access as all," the report said.

As the reliance on the "information society" rises in ASEAN countries, digital inclusiveness becomes more important, but reaching rural and vulnerable populations remains difficult, said the report, even for leading countries.

Referencing the 2014 Global Information Technology Report from the World Economic Forum, the report ranked Singapore as second in the world in terms of "networked readiness", while Burma (Myanmar) was ranked 146 from 148 of world's countries. Additionally, Cambodia came in at 108, with Laos at 109.

Given that a World Bank report, Information and Communication for Development, predicted an increase in economic growth by 1.38 percent in low- and middle-income countries for every 10 percent increase in broadband penetration, countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia could continue to lag behind their regional brethren — an economic gulf that may deepen.

"The global divide between leaders and laggards is at risk of increasing, given the spread of technologies which only those with good broadband connectivity can take advantage of," the report said.

Information security has also emerged as a divisive factor in the trusted usage of broadband services in the region, affecting uptake. In order to counter perceptions of vulnerable networks, countries such as Indonesia are making a habit of working with the private sector to improve the public's perception of service reliability.

The report suggested that the supply of broadband must be matched by demand, with broadband implementation remaining the easier part of the supply and demand equation, despite the financial and practical challenges involved.

"More difficult are the challenges of improving affordability and raising awareness of the benefits of broadband adoption," it said. "Countries are only now beginning to tackle these issues through innovative programs."

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