Sunday, June 20, 2021

Rural B40 families left in the dark as tech-savvy townies shop, pay their bills online and more

Even poor people have to go online in Covid times, experts say, so surely somebody should make computers cheaper and rural internet access more reliable.

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Compared to just a year ago, digital technology is playing such a crucial role in the “new normal” that it has quickly become an indispensable part of the lives of Malaysians during the on-again off-again movement control orders or MCOs.

These days you can and should do pretty much everything from home without going outside, and most people are getting used to it, maybe even liking it.

However, you need to have certain things in your home to be able to do that and a large segment of the population is having a hard time getting the stuff together to make the obligatory shift to life online.

Finding affordable digital equipment and reliable internet supply is still a problem for the rural B40 income group.

Experts say solving network coverage issues and making computers cheaper should be a vital part of the country’s pursuit of a digital transformation.

As the country speeds towards more online shopping, banking, bill paying, learning, and registering on government sites, the poor are left scratching their heads.

Although 83% of rural households now have internet access, only 55% own a computer.

While a grasp of information and communications technology (ICT) is readily achievable in the city, it becomes more difficult the further you live from population centres.

Sunway University economics professor Yeah Kim Leng tells MalaysiaNow there is a widening digital gap between urban and rural communities in Malaysia.

Citing the findings of the Department of Statistics’ ICT Use and Access by Individuals and Households 2020 Survey Report, he says that although 83% of rural households now have internet access, only 55% own a computer.

Compare this to urban households, with 93% internet access and around 80% computer ownership.

Yeah says these national average percentages mask larger anomalies.

“Differences between urban and rural households are greater in the less developed east coast peninsular states, and Sabah and Sarawak,” he says.

“The 2019 Department of Statistics income survey shows that the national median monthly household gross income of the B40 group is RM3,152 but the lowest is in Kelantan at just RM2,194.

“A laptop today costs as much as a B40 household’s monthly income.”

But even if it were affordable, hardware alone is of limited use without good connections.

“In addition to affordability, rural families face problems of poor digital infrastructure, accessibility, and quality,” says Professor Madeline Berma of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. “And many of them are unfamiliar with the technology.”

She confirms that even in these perilous times, digital infrastructure development, especially fibre connections, is invariably focused on cities and urban areas as opposed to vulnerable rural and remote communities.

However, both Yeah and Berma say there are ways these issues can be solved.

Yeah believes government and commercial subsidies aimed at making digital equipment more affordable would narrow the gap.

“Providing tax incentives and encouraging sales promotions and discounts to the B40 group would be one way to bring them up to speed,” he says.

“A laptop today costs as much as a B40 household’s monthly income.”

Berma agrees on the need for bold policies, especially from internet providers.

She says large plantations and other rural big players should be incentivised to provide free broadband services to communities in their areas.

“There is definitely a need for more competition to provide rural communities with fast and reliable internet service and affordable digital equipment,” she says.

The National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP) was drawn up to improve broadband quality and coverage, reduce broadband prices and provide reliable internet access across all spectrums of society.

The time frame for the implementation of NFCP was set as five years, from 2019 to 2023, which, pre-pandemic, might have been thought of as impressively fast.

Times have changed though, and Yeah says the NFCP should be accelerated and targeted to solve network coverage issues in rural areas

Berma says government departments, schools, and libraries in rural areas should be subsidised to introduce schemes to “lend or check out” devices to poorer communities as well as running familiarisation courses.

Once decision makers get over the shock of discovering that poor, remote communities are obliged to use the internet too in the time of recurring Covid thunderstorms, maybe somebody will act quickly to bring them under the national digital umbrella.

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