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Timor-Leste's young population fed up with world's fourth-slowest internet

ABC News - January 23, 2024

Vonia Vieira, Dili – Joaquim Fonseca's daily life depends on the internet. So the IT professional, based in Timor-Leste's capital Dili, has a problem.

"Every day, somehow, the internet fails," he told the ABC. "Downloading small files is difficult. Even downloading a page to read the news [is hard]."

It is a long-running issue in Timor-Leste. The country sits only 700 kilometres north-west of Darwin but its internet speed and capacity are in another world.

According to the results of research conducted by UK broadband provider Cable, Timor-Leste has the fourth-slowest internet in the world, sitting just in front of Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria.

"Sometimes we can't even connect to WhatsApp," Betelia Leco Loco, a student at the University of Timor Lorosa'e (UNTL) in Dili told the ABC.

Betelia, 22, says it hinders her ability to study. "Doing research on an article and [downloading] a journal is difficult," she said. "And virtual meetings drop out."

Three providers, same problems

Timor-Leste has a population of 1.3 million, with just under half the population considered active internet users.

The population is also young – the average age is 20 – and it is urbanising and becoming more digitally savvy, meaning more locals are beginning to rely on the internet to conduct business or study.

But the growth of infrastructure to support the rise isn't keeping up and researchers say technological change is one of the most critical issues facing the country.

Previous governments have talked about fibre-optic investment to improve internet speeds but it has never been implemented.

The current government, led by Xanana Gusmao, says it is committed to establishing a cross-border terrestrial fibre-optic cable system that it says will contribute to a "more robust and diversified internet infrastructure".

It says it will come through the construction of the Timor-Leste South Submarine Cable System – the country's first submarine fibre-optic cable system.

This project, which was implemented by the previous government, aims to connect Timor-Leste to the internet via Australia.

It is due to be completed by the end of this year, with researchers saying it may help the country begin its long-awaited digital transformation.

Timor-Leste has three mobile and internet service providers: Timor Telcom, Telcomsel and Telemor.

Joaquim uses all three. "Some of them are better in different places," he said.

"It's really frustrating because it is not only about the cost, [which is high], it is about the inconsistency of the availability of the service and the very poor quality.

"So I have to spend $US300 to $US400 per month to buy an internet package."

Telcomsel finance and business partner Dady Edward Ambarita admits internet speed has been a "concern" for his company as the number of Timorese connecting to the internet has grown.

"Over [the past 11 years] the number of users is rising and we're getting more subscribers," he said.

"That's become a new problem for us so we have to increase the capacity through the modernisation of our equipment."

He said the company had made investments in this area "every year" but he urged the government to provide more support for infrastructure and better regulation of the industry.

Mr Ambarita said according to data service providers, almost all of the high-speed internet, or 4G, was given to international organisations, international companies, hotels, United Nations organisations and governments operating in Dili.

Internet and civil rights in Timor-Leste

Academic and civil rights activist Fernando Ximenes has conducted research on internet issues and business carried out by telcos in Timor Leste.

According to Mr Ximenes, telcos are trying to monopolise the internet. But he said they ignored the fact it was a human right to access good-quality internet.

"The internet situation is also manifested in how the country's economy operates – it's highly monopolised," he said.

Mr Ximenes says this has an impact on civil and economic rights in the country, which only gained independence in 2002.

"Look at countries like Hong Kong," he said. "Internet issues affect political civil rights ... so far in Timor-Leste there is no blocking and censorship.

"But this research shows [it's] about economic rights, that is rights for access, and we have the right to access the internet with good prices and quality."

The ABC contacted both Telemor and Timor Telcom for comment.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-01-23/timor-leste-internet-fourth-slowest-in-world/10336450