Made Anthony Iswara, Jakarta – The slow pace at which Indonesia is addressing digital inequality could jeopardize basic rights for those excluded, experts have warned, at a time when the world relies heavily on information technology to stay connected.
On Sunday, the global community celebrated World Telecommunication and Information Society Day while much of the world sheltered in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has infected more than 4.5 million people and killed upwards of 300,000.
During the pandemic, information technology has allowed people around the world to stay connected, and these connections are becoming more important than ever, said United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his message to commemorate the occasion.
"World Telecommunication and Information Society Day reminds us that international cooperation on digital technology is essential to help defeat COVID-19 and achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development," he said in a statement on the UN website.
In Indonesia, the rapid internet penetration of the last two decades has yet to benefit the majority of the population, owing to inequitable access to information technology in the country's rural and remote areas.
According to both the 2020 Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU) Inclusive Internet Index and the 2019 Network Readiness Index, Indonesia trails behind most of its neighbors in inclusive access to the internet.
"This populous Southeast Asian country experiences considerable difficulties in supporting internet inclusion in every area of the index except for trust and safety," the EIU report states. "Indonesia struggles, for example, to ensure affordability of mobile and fixed broadband data, and local content availability leaves much to be desired."
So far, this digital divide has impeded the government's COVID-19 social assistance programs, which rely heavily on online platforms to deliver relief to those in need. It has also weighed down on schools affected by social restrictions, which are expected to shift to online learning with little to no preparation in internet access.
"[The effort to increase access] should not simply be about ratcheting up digital industry growth; it should also be about giving the public access to what is already available," said Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM) deputy research director Wahyudi Djafar.
"Because the internet is an enabler that opens up opportunities, it is important to ensure that [wide] access is available."
A number of reports portray Indonesia's digital divide. A 2018 Indonesian Internet Providers Association (APJII) survey, for instance, showed that the country's most populous island of Java contributes over half of the internet usage, much higher than the rest of the country, with most users living in urban areas.
But Indonesia is not alone. International Telecommunication Union (ITU) secretary-general Houlin Zhao said in a video message on Feb. 25 that almost half the world's population was still not using the Internet, while overall growth in information and communications technology (ICT) connectivity was slowing.
"Time is pressing," he said. "We need to coordinate and redouble our efforts to connect everyone to the global digital economy, and for those connected, more must be done to ensure that connected life is safe and trustworthy."
The Indonesian government has sought to provide 4G services through the Palapa Ring broadband project, a 35,000-kilometer fiberoptic network throughout the archipelago that was completed last year.
"The Palapa Ring will hopefully be able to bring justice to all Indonesian citizens – from Sabang to Merauke, from Miangas to Rote – and allow them to have an equal opportunity to access advanced technology and high-speed connectivity," President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said during the project's launch last October.
In the past, authorities have used universal service obligation (USO) funds collected from telecommunication operators to expand internet access through programs like Desa Berdering (Ringing Villages) and sub-district mobile internet service centers (M-PLIK), among others.
APJII chairman Jamalul Izza expressed appreciation for the Palapa Ring project but said that internet providers needed more outreach to cities in the country's interior as the infrastructure only connected the outermost regions so far.
In the meantime, the association has been encouraging regional heads and village-owned businesses (BUMDs) to get involved in the internet business, informing them of alternatives to fiber optic internet connections, such as microwave transmission and satellites, among others.
"We hope that internet traffic and penetration will increase," he said. " This is important because a good internet connection can add to people's knowledge [...] whether they are in cities or villages."