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Can HSDPA leapfrog infrastructure bottlenecks to bring Indonesia online?

Most Indonesians access the Internet primarily using fixed wireline infrastructure, mostly dialup. Because of lack of competition in the fixed line sector due to various reasons fixed line growth has been stagnant which has also affected Internet growth in the country. Not only are no new lines being added to bring more homes online, the inadequate backbone infrastructure in large swathe of the country makes deployment of broadband services unviable even if incumbent’s local loop bottleneck could be bypassed.

However, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (March 15, 2007) seems to suggest that high speed 3G wireless technology like HSDPA can bring broadband on a large scale to Indonesians. It (misleadingly) implies that since HSDPA is merely a software upgrade to 3G networks it will not require any new major telecom infrastructure investment in Indonesia. The fact is that 3G services have just been launched in the last quarter of 2006 in some urban areas concentrated in and around Jakarta. The Indonesian operators have a long way to go to upgrade all their base stations to support 3G. Even if the base stations were upgraded to 3G standards there are no shortcuts to building backbone infrastructure (preferably fiber optic) to connect the base stations. Furthermore, large parts of eastern Indonesia do not have any connectivity leave alone 2G or 3G.

Realistically, HSDPA will be a connectivity solution for those customers who have been starved off ADSL connectivity thanks to Pt Telkom’s “Dog in the manger” attitude. Those customers who can afford HSDPA compatible handsets will be a very small subset of potential Internet users in Indonesia. 2+G connectivity solutions will continue to remain relevant for a vast majority of Indonesians.
Indonesia Embraces 3G to Get Up to Speed on Web (Wall Street Journal March 15, 2007)
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s rapid adoption of cutting-edge cellphone technology for Internet access is helping Southeast Asia’s largest economy to catch up with its technologically savvier neighbors.

A sprawling nation of 220 million people and more than 13,000 islands, Indonesia has one of the least-developed communications systems in Asia. Getting a phone connection without echoes or distortion is a matter of luck, and Internet connections relying on cable networks are among the slowest in the region.

The arrival of High-Speed Downlink Packet Access, or HSDPA — a software upgrade to 3G mobile-phone technology that allows users faster access to the Internet through cellular networks — could help change that[..]

HSDPA technology, pioneered in Indonesia by PT Indonesia Satellite Corp., or Indosat, offers Internet download speeds at least six times as fast as connections relying on cable, a wider difference than in a more-developed economy. And because it’s an add-on to 3G technology, it doesn’t need any major new telecom infrastructure — just some equipment attached to existing mobile base stations.

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Indonesia also is primed for expansion because less than 30% of its population currently uses cellphones, compared with 80% in Malaysia and 40% in the Philippines. Indonesia has 65 million mobile users; industry analysts forecast that number will reach 100 million by 2010.

Since starting its service in November, Indosat has signed 60,000 customers in Jakarta and Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city. Working with Ericsson and Nokia, the company hopes to add coverage to eight other major cities by the end of March. “It’s going to be very popular,” predicts Djarot Handoko, a spokesman for Indosat.

Nokia is working with another local telecommunications company, PT Telekomunikasi Selular, to start an HSDPA service in Indonesia later this year. Indonesia is one of the biggest potential markets for 3G, says a Nokia executive advising the company[..]

Dev Yusmananda, an executive at PT Excelcomindo Pratama, which has just started a similar service, says the prospective Indonesian market is huge. “We’re talking about it [HSDPA] as a substitution for a broadband connection,” he says.

Ironically, the interest generated by the arrival of HSDPA is a consequence of Indonesia’s failure to build a decent national cable grid. The country had plans to lay an extensive network in the 1990s, but the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98 intervened, and many projects were shelved. Many of the cables that were installed were poorly laid. Recent flooding in Jakarta damaged networks and left many people without Internet access for days[..]

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