Connecting the Unconnected 

Completing the satellite broadband installation in 438 remote areas across the Philippines marks a milestone in the National Broadband Plan, aligned with the government’s free Wi-Fi initiative. This recent project, amounting to $3.6 million, involved the establishment of compact satellite terminals, providing internet speeds ranging from 10 to 30 Mbit/s to approximately 400 users per site simultaneously. The project reached completion within a remarkable timeframe of 30 days.

Through its free Wi-Fi programme, the Philippine government not only grants access to essential online services in remote regions but also endeavours to empower local entrepreneurs to engage in the digital economy. The Philippines’ efforts to narrow the digital divide serve as a valuable example for other Southeast Asian nations.

Rural areas face a pronounced disparity in internet access compared to urban centres. Data from the World Bank in 2022 reveals that Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam exhibited rural population percentages of 75%, 62%, and 61%, respectively, indicating millions without internet connectivity.

Addressing internet accessibility in rural communities, particularly those with substantial populations, presents a formidable challenge. Leveraging satellite-based connectivity emerges as a viable solution, requiring less infrastructure than traditional broadband methods. The deployment of the first Starlink terminal at a smart farm in Cambodia in July 2023 heralds the dawn of a new era in satellite-based internet connectivity within predominantly rural settings.

The geographical characteristics of the Southeast Asia region present a significant obstacle to narrowing the digital gap. With over 24,000 islands spanning from Indonesia to the Philippines alone, the practicality of deploying ground-based telecommunications infrastructure across this vast expanse is evidently limited.

Satellite Internet emerges as an optimal connectivity solution for linking the myriad islands of Indonesia and the Philippines due to its expansive coverage, swift deployment, and scalability.

Projections by ABI Research indicate a robust growth of satellite communications subscriptions in Southeast Asia, with a forecasted CAGR of 20% between 2023 and 2028, surpassing 1.8 million subscriptions by 2028. Governments’ efforts to bridge the digital divide will increasingly rely on satellite connectivity as a pivotal technological solution. This expansion in SatCom subscriptions will be propelled by collaborative endeavours between governmental bodies, Communication Service Providers (CSPs), and satellite operators, augmented investment, technological advancements in space, and supportive policy frameworks.

In 2021, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand led Southeast Asia in internet accessibility, boasting high penetration rates, according to data from the World Bank.

Conversely, Myanmar, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Indonesia lagged behind with lower internet penetration rates. Owing to its extensive coverage, scalability, and global accessibility, the adoption of satellite communication holds promise for substantially elevating internet access in these regions.

Research by Tarana Wireless indicates that the cost of fibre deployment per kilometre ranges from US$2,800 for aerial installations to US$5,200 for buried installations. Given these cost dynamics, satellite Internet is an economically efficient solution for connecting remote rural areas in nations like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

Satellite Internet could significantly mitigate the digital gap and extend digital opportunities to underserved and unserved rural communities, offering a more cost-effective alternative.

Southeast Asia encompasses countries situated within the Pacific Ring of Fire, renowned for its seismic activity. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam are among the Southeast Asian nations within or adjacent to this zone. Natural disasters in this region, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, frequently disrupt internet access, impacting millions of people. For instance, in 2020, natural disasters affected 9.22 million individuals in Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, leading to a 0.73% decrease in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

During such crises, communication services become crucial for survival. Terrestrial internet infrastructure, including fibre-optic cables and cell towers, is susceptible to damage from natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Issues such as physical damage, power outages, network congestion, and infrastructure accessibility render terrestrial internet vulnerable. Conversely, satellite internet emerges as a resilient digital technology in disaster-prone areas, maintaining connectivity even when terrestrial networks falter. Independent of physical infrastructure, satellite internet can swiftly deploy critical communication services during and after disasters, aiding emergency response and recovery efforts.

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