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Evaluating ICT policy in Indonesia: Interview with LIRNEasia researcher

As part of a special review of ICT policy in Indonesia, e-Indonesia, the Indonesian ICT monthly magazine, interviewed a number of key stakeholders including the Minister Sofyan Djalil, Commissioners from BRTI, the regulatory body, civil society group, industry reps and ICT experts.

LIRNEasia researcher, Divakar Goswami, was also interviewed. The interview is featured in the online edition here. The interview is in bahasa. The English text of the interview is below:
1. How’s the growth of ICT in Indonesia for along 2006 (as we see from regulations, infrastructure development (hardware and software), human being, ICT industry etc)?

Information and Communication Technology sector (ICT) in Indonesia is one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy contributing most to GDP growth rate (around 16%) than any other sector. The ICT sector in Indonesia is dynamic, growing and profitable. Compared to the past, the regulatory environment is more transparent, pro-market, pro-growth and therefore pro-poor.

ICT Sector

Wherever competition has been introduced, growth has been spectacular; those sectors lacking competition have grown more slowly. Take the example of the mobile sector that has added 6.6 million subscribers during the first half of the year and where operators have aggressively invested in infrastructure. For the year 2006, we may see an investment of more than $2.5 billion dollars made in the mobile infrastructure as the existing operators gear up to face the challenge from Hutch and Maxis who are rapidly rolling out their infrastructure. The mobile operators have been expanding their network at a frenetic pace: Since the end of 2005, Telkomsel has increased its number of base stations from 7,741 to 12,156 a growth of 57 percent; Excelcomindo’s base stations during that same period have grown from 3,620 to 6,052, a growth of 67 percent. Despite making substantial investments, mobile companies continue to be profitable. Excelcom and Bakrie Telecom that had losses in 2005 have made profits this year.

The fixed sector’s performance on the other hand is poor. The growth of fixed line phones per 100 inhabitants will probably be negative this year as the number of fixed phones remain stagnant and the population increases. Because of Telkom’s de facto monopoly in the fixed line market it is unlikely that the company has any incentives to invest in this sector and nor can investment come in from other operators if the sector is not fully opened up to competition.

Many have argued that why bother with fixed if mobile is doing so well. Since most of Internet service provision is currently relying on fixed infrastructure, the lack of fixed line growth means that there is also no growth in Internet subscribers. According to BPS’ survey from 2005, there are an estimated 10.3 million Internet users who access the Internet from home, office, warnets etc. For a country of 222 million that is less than 0.05 percent of the total population that use the Internet. If one looks at Telkom’s broadband subscribers, it stands at a pathetic 35,000. What are the reasons for this and how can we bridge this digital divide?

The significant cost components of an Internet Service Provider (ISP) in Indonesia are its leased line and international bandwidth costs. As my WiFi study on Indonesia (available on www.lirneasia.net/projects) has shown, leased line prices in Indonesia are around 48 time the price in India for a comparable link. International bandwidth costs are also a couple of times higher compared to countries in the region. Both the domestic and international leased lines have limited competition and hence the prices tend to be high. This translates to nearly $4000 in monthly leased line and internet connectivity costs (512 Kbps) for an ISP. Taking into consideration the average income of an Indonesian, it is astronomical sum! No wonder Internet access in Indonesia is unaffordable to the vast majority and will continue to be so unless competition is introduced in the “big pipes”—in the domestic and international backbone infrastructure markets.

Broadband penetration will continue to be low as long as there is only one provider of ADSL. Hopefully, in the future, competition from wireless broadband providers will lower the prices and make it more affordable for Indonesian people.

ICT Regulation

The Ministry and BRTI have undertaken a number of pro-growth initiatives in the last year or two. It has successfully conducted 3G auction that has been widely perceived as the most transparent licensing in Indonesia’s history. Two new mobile operators have been introduced and the increased competition will hopefully drive down mobile retail prices and make them more affordable for those in the “bottom of the pyramid.” A new cost-based interconnection regime has been introduced, which mandates cost-oriented interconnection and provides enforcement “teeth” to the regulators. When implemented from 2007, it will hopefully promote fixed-line competition and ensure greater transparency in this contentious area.

BRTI’s regulation to implement a phased reduction of leased line prices based on cost calculations may help lower Internet retail prices and help diffusion of Internet connectivity.

However, there are a number of regulatory barriers that are preventing faster growth of the sector. Indonesia has an archaic licensing framework that may have been relevant 10 years ago, but not anymore. Converged services where voice, data, video may be combined blurs the boundary between traditional fixed and mobile services. Indonesia’s regulatory environment is simply not relevant to converged IP-based networks like the New Generation Network (NGN) that are being ushered in all across the globe. The current licensing framework is not technology neutral and has different rules and licensing requirements based on a particular technology. This has resulted, for example, in a situation where the regulator is trying to prevent Bakrie Telecom and Telkom Flexi from providing full mobility services because their license treats them as fixed operators although the CDMA technology can be used to provide full mobile services that will significantly enhance the utility of the service to customers.

Why Bakrie Telecom is licensed to provide service in only two regions is beyond my understanding. When a country does not have enough telecom infrastructure I would think it is in the interest of the Government and the public if an operator is allowed to build a network throughout the country. There are many other serious problems with the licensing framework which I will not get into, but this by far remains an area where more of the Government’s energies should be focussed.

Most of the operators I have spoken to, with the exception of Telkom, feel that although the current regulatory structure is better than what existed previously, it is still not independent in its decision-making. If you look at the structure of the organization it is apparent that BRTI is embedded within the Government that also controls two of the largest telecom operators in the country, Telkom and Indosat. The credibility of BRTI’s decisions will be considerably enhanced among the operators and other stakeholders if it were reformed and given more independent powers and separated from DGPT. The small degree of independence for BRTI has shown impressive results in terms of investment that has come into the sector. Imagine the investor confidence if a fully independent regulator can be put in place?

2. Is there any progress in 2006 than 2005? If yes, what is the indicator?

The following graph indicates quite clearly the progress of the ICT sector from 2005 till half of 2006:
The number of mobile phones in Indonesia per 100 inhabitants has increased quite significantly from 21.6 in the end of 2005 to 24.32 in the middle of this year. The number will probably go up by the end of the year, although growth from 2005 to 2006 may not be as rapid as from 2004 to 2005. However, with the introduction of Hutch and Maxis in the mobile sector, we should see more rapid growth in the number of mobile subscribers who are added to the network at the end of 2007. More competition in the mobile sector will lower mobile retail prices that are quite high compared to the region and make it more affordable to those on the “bottom of the pyramid.”

Although the penetration of fixed wireless access (FWA: CDMA) seems to grow slowly from 2005 to 2006, it does not reflect the impressive performance of Bakrie Telecom that has grown its network from 0.3 million to 1.3 million in less than a year. The slowing growth of FWA is primarily because Telkom Flexi shed a significant number of non-revenue generating subscribers from its network.

3. If no progress or stagnant, would you please to explain it?

Fixed wireline penetration has been negative because of a lack of competition in that sector. In a country with such low penetration one does not expect to see negative growth rates. Telkom, the monopoly provider, has no incentive to invest in fixed line infrastructure in the absence of competition.

Internet penetration numbers from 2006 are not available although growth in the number of Internet subscribers will continue to remain low because Internet prices remain unaffordable to a vast majority of Indonesian. Furthermore, only 3.74 people out of 100 own a PC in Indonesia. Of those PC owners only 27 percent use their PCs to access the Internet. Low PC ownership and low Internet use even among those who own PCs are also other factors that are contributing to stagnant Internet growth.

4. What do you think about the commitment of Indonesia’s government or Information Communication Department (Depkominfo)?

In view of the past year’s performance, I believe that the Minister Sofyan Djalil is someone who would like to reform the ICT sector and bring more competition to develop ICT infrastructure and lower prices. However, as an outsider, one gets the impression that not everyone in the Depkominfo is on the same page as the Minister. Furthermore, since the Indonesian government is dependent on dividends it receives from Telkom, it is probably hard to take decisions that may affect the profitability of the company. It is therefore crucial to separate the policy and regulatory functions. Let the Depkominfo develop policy and leave the day to day business of regulating the ICT sector to the BRTI.

5. What is the important think in this year that must be done by the government but not yet finished?

The Government has been collecting Universal Service Obligation (USO) funds from operators to roll out basic telephone service to 40,000 villages in Indonesia that do not have any connectivity. A least-cost subsidy auction was supposed to be held this year to disburse the USO funds in a transparent manner. However, a Ministerial decree is awaited to launch this very critical program to extend access to the digital “have-nots.” It is hoped that the auction will be held soon and will be open to all network operators (fixed and mobile).

6. What do you think about Dewan Teknologi Informasi (Information and Technology Council) formed by The President SBY? Are you optimist or pessimist with this council?

The formation of the National Information and Communication Technology Council (NICTC) by the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is a very important development for Indonesia’s ICT sector. It signals the recognition at the highest level of government that the ICT sector is important for Indonesia’s development and growth. Since the lapse of the 1999 Blueprint, the ICT sector in Indonesia is rudderless. Although the Government has good intentions, many of the policy/regulatory actions have been taken on an ad hoc basis without the guidance of a coherent vision. So a number of decrees have been issued that are overlapping and licensing is being done on an ad hoc basis. For infrastructure sectors with high sunk costs and long gestation periods, like for telecoms, there must be continuity and coherence in the Government’s policies.

Clear vision informed by the views of the various stakeholders can make the Council a guiding hand that can lead the sector to a higher trajectory of growth. The leadership can remove many hurdles imposed by bureaucracy and narrow vested interests.

The first meeting of the Council will be key in defining the objectives that the Government and other stakeholders aim to achieve for the ICT sector. The success of the Council will depend on it developing a time-bound road map or action plan that lays out what the Government would like to see achieved and in what time frame. When the Technical Coordination meeting is held every three months, they would be in a position to evaluate the implementation of the action plans. The biannual Council meeting led by the President would ideally evaluate progress of the action plans, make changes when required and bring to task parties that are responsible for delays in implementation. If that happens, watch the Indonesian ICT sector take-off like a rocket!

8. According to you, what must they do to make a good ICT implementation? And what improvement we can do next?

Good implementation of ICT projects must take into consideration sustainability of the projects when funding stops. For example, it is laudable that Qualcomm has provided wireless access to high schools in Way Kanan in Lampung and plans to connect 59 villages with “warcells,” cellular kiosks. However, the key to success to these projects is to develop a financially viable model to sustain this initiative when Qualcomm stops funding this program. As Grameen in Bangladesh has shown with the Village Phone Program, it is possible for a company to provide connectivity to rural villages in a profitable manner. Because Grameen is making profits from providing telephone connectivity to villages it is in its own interest to expand the service to more villages and in turn help bridge the digital divide.

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