Malaysian users in thinly-populated rural areas connect to 4G just 44% of the time

In a strategic position at the heart of South East Asia, Malaysia is among the more urbanized ASEAN countries. After decades of migration from rural and remote areas, more than 70% of its population today lives in urban centers. The increasing population density in urban centers has created a digital divide between thinly and densely populated areas. Opensignal measured our users’ experience across Malaysia and found that a connectivity gap exists between sparsely populated rural areas and densely populated urban areas. In fact, our rural users in the least populated districts were able to find a 4G connection just over half of the time compared to our urban users.

To measure this gap, Opensignal analyzed 4G Availability across the country by using the latest census data from the Malaysian Government Open Data to classify 144 districts from 13 states and three federal territories into five distinct categories, based on their population densities:

  • Category 1 — Up to 10 people per sq. km
  • Category 2 — 10 to 50 people per sq. km
  • Category 3 — 50 to 100 people per sq. km
  • Category 4 — 100 to 300 people per sq. km
  • Category 5 — More than 300 people per sq. km

In this analysis, Opensignal found that while our users in the most densely populated districts (Cat. 5) could connect to 4G networks 83.7% of the time, users in the most sparsely populated districts (Cat. 1) spent just 44% of their time on 4G networks — a difference of almost 40 percentage points. On the other hand, when we examined the time our users spent connected to all mobile data networks (3G and 4G services combined), this disparity diminished, but 3G/4G Availability still dropped at least 25 percentage points, from 97.6% in most densely populated areas (Cat. 5) to 72.9% in the most sparsely populated districts (Cat. 1).

Opensignal’s real-world data shows there is a strong correlation between the time our users spent connected to mobile networks and the population density in Malaysia. We saw that our users experienced the lowest 4G Availability in the districts characterized by the lowest population density. Those districts have a higher proportion of rural areas, where operators usually find it more challenging to deploy and maintain the required network infrastructure. On the other hand, our users in the highly-populated districts — which are mostly urban areas — experienced a higher 4G Availability. In fact, mobile operators generally deploy and upgrade their networks in dense urban areas first, where they can often serve a larger mass of customers with a lower number of cell sites.

Today, smartphones have become the preferred device to access the internet — nine out of ten (93.1%) of Internet users in Malaysia went online using smart devices in 2018 —and internet connectivity has become as important in providing access to other kinds of basic infrastructure In order to close the digital divide, the Malaysian government and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) have launched initiatives such as the National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP), which recently allocated RM21.6 billion to provide both urban and rural population equal access to the internet, and generate a constructive environment for new technologies such as 5G.

Meanwhile, the USP “Time 3” coverage plan, has called for operators to ensure that mobile coverage is available in areas where there is a population density of at least 80 people per sq. km. This is to avoid unnecessary infrastructure duplication; and to optimally use spectrum to address coverage in rural and remote areas, which could make the rollout and upgrading of networks in these areas more economical. But until further investment in rural areas is made, Malaysian consumers in underpopulated areas will continue to depend on older, slower network technologies like 2G and 3G to access internet services.