Indonesia’s Digital Divide


An ambitious plan to roll out “cheap and meaningful” broadband to 20 percent of the Indonesian population by 2012 is gearing up in Jakarta, with strong support from the government and corporate sectors.

Investor Group Against Digital Divide (IGADD), the non-profit think-tank behind the plan, aims to increase broadband penetration levels by 20 times, with the use of innovative technology and a business plan it says will help bridge the “digital divide” between rich and poor.

Currently, only 1-2 percent of Indonesia’s population has access to broadband, according to the group.

IGGAD Director Dr. Craig Warren Smith – a former Harvard professor and advisor to the UN on the "digital divide" – said that one of the biggest government preoccupations in the past decade has been how to close the gap in information technology access between rich and poor.

"Since then, the world has been looking for a location that shows how market forces could be harnessed to support human potential. Perhaps Indonesia will be that place," Smith said.

Indonesia currently ranks at the bottom of wired East Asian nations. For those who do have broadband access – mostly through First Media, a private company owned by the Riady empire – the service is expensive, frustrating and often slower than dial-up service in other countries. By contrast, nearly 90 percent of South Korean and Hong Kong homes have broadband access.

Although legislation designed to implement telecommunications reform was pushed through the legislature in 1999 after the collapse of the Suharto regime, political squabbling has kept development at a crawl. Indonesia boasts some 12 million , but only 41,500 have broadband, according to the website Point Topic. However, some 80 million Indonesians have , or 34 percent of the population. IGADD suggests that the problem of Indonesia’s lack of fiber-optic cabling can be leap-frogged with the aid of mobile phone technology.

Dr Ilham Habibie, chairman of the not-for-profit group, said that the group's goal of ’20 by ‘12’ could be achieved using the country's existing infrastructure and recent technological innovations, including Wimax, or wireless networks that cover large areas, and 3G moblie phone technology.

Like his father before him, former Indonesian President B J Habibe, Dr. Habibie's primary interest is science and technology.

"Sixty percent of the Indonesian population lives on Java and Java is already covered with telecommunications services,” he said, referring to the cell phone towers that dot the Javanese landscape. "Essentially, we just have to add one little box on that communication tower."

He added that the plan was as much about generating "bottom-up economic growth" as it was about improving telecommunications infrastructure for profit.

"We will be developing financial formulas, but making sure broadband becomes a tool for Indonesians' own empowerment," Habibie said.

Istitut Teknologi Bandung (ITB) Professor Armein Langi, an authority on rural technologies and one of the think-tank's founders, said ITB already had two "test-bed" villages in West Java, established last year and funded by Delft Technical university in Holland. The village of Tuntlut, 5 kilometers north of Bandung, and Cinta Mekar, in the Subana region, had already been wired for broadband, greatly improving communication in places where telephones had been scarce.

Prof Langi said it cost 10 million rupiah (US$1,100) to set up a village and once the network was established people could use the network for free.

"The idea is to create local connectivity, making the network independent of expensive infrastructure outside the village." he said.

Now Indonesian engineers need to create software useful to rural people that would aid their economic, social and political development. Existing technology has been developed with people at the top of the pyramid in mind, Prof Langi said.

For example, software could be developed to facilitate the buying and selling of goods villagers' produce. Eventually, technology could aid the collection of healthcare data, and greatly improve educational resources.

Educational software that would help to ensure all teachers had equal access to teaching resources was already under development at ITB and was being funded by Microsoft.

"Many things can be simulated on computers, like science labs, that would otherwise be expensive to set up," Prof Langi said.

In addition, Telecommunications company Qualcomm had set up a lab at ITB and were developing rural applications for mobile phones.

On March 15, the rector of Institute Technology Bandung (ITB) would be hosting a day-long seminar for twenty nine other rectors of major Indonesian universities, where the will consider how best to apply telecommunications technologies for the benefit of ordinary Indonesians among, other matters.

Following that, the first ever joint meeting of Indonesian alumni clubs, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, would be meeting to consider their role in the plan. A related lecture series would run at the Habibie Center in March and April.

The official, nationwide launch of the program was set to take place in October.

By taking a cooperative inter-sector, international approach, IGADD hope to avoid the corruption and cronyism that have marred development initiatives in Southeast Asia.

An attempt to extend broadband in the Philippines – which ranks just above Indonesia among Asian countries wired for digital access – recently went awry because of corruption. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, faces allegations that he solicited millions of dollars for seeking the award of a US$329 million contract to the Chinese state firm ZTE Corp to wire the country for broadband. The deal has since collapsed and protests demanding President Arroyo’s ouster over the scandal have been held in recent weeks.