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Malaysia’s mobile data consumption surge in 2020 dwarfed that of neighbouring countries

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In one of our previous insights, we analyzed Malaysia’s mobile data consumption and its effects on 4G Download Speed experienced by our users, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We observed a substantial boost of mobile data usage among all Malaysian operators, matched with noticeably lowering 4G download speeds. In fact, the Government’s introduction of the nationwide lockdown (Movement Control Order) increased citizens’ dependence on internet access to facilitate work, education and social interactions. As Malaysian households connect to the Internet mostly through mobile broadband plans on smartphones, local operators started to offer 1GB of free data on a daily basis (with varying terms and conditions) for the duration of the MCO, as part of the government's PRIHATIN stimulus package. This, along with newly introduced unlimited data plans, contributed to the intense surge of data consumption. 

This time, we take a look at how Malaysia’s boost in data consumption fared against other countries in the Southeast Asia region. Opensignal has studied monthly mobile data consumption in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia, over the period of January 2020 – March 2021. 

All analyzed countries showed sudden surges in mobile data consumption in March and April 2020 — around the time when local authorities introduced lockdown measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaysia saw the highest mobile consumption increase in these two months, with increases of 14.6% in March 2020 and 30.7% in April 2020, compared to the levels seen in January 2020. Meanwhile, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia reported a 14-20% growth in data consumption in April 2020, compared to January 2020 — while Singapore showed a decline of approximately 22%. In the following months, Malaysia’s data consumption retained its momentum — seeing increases between 15%-30% per month (compared to January 2020), consistently higher than Indonesia, Singapore or Thailand across all months.

The effect of free daily data packages and unlimited data plans introduced in Malaysia can also be seen when we compare data recorded for the same month across different years. As seasonality could account for some trend changes over the year 2020, we looked at data usage in January 2019, 2020 and 2021. Malaysia saw an impressive increase between January 2020 and January 2021 — 35.2% YoY growth, compared to 23.3% for Indonesia and 16.9% for Cambodia. Noteworthy, the 2020/2021 YoY boost for Malaysia was much higher than the 2019/2020 YoY increase of 16.3%. Meanwhile — Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore and Indonesia noted a slowdown in terms of mobile data consumption growth in the 2020/2021 period, compared to 2019/2020.


It is worth mentioning that Malaysia’s base data consumption in January 2020 (19.5 GB) was much larger than in Cambodia (13.2 GB), Indonesia (11.9 GB) and Singapore (11.8 GB) — which makes the growth in absolute terms even more spectacular. Thailand and Malaysia recorded similar data consumption levels in January 2020 (approximately 19.5 GB), but after 12 months passed, Malaysia’s data consumption accelerated faster than Thailand’s — 26.4 GB in January 2021, compared to Thailand’s 22.3 GB.

The introduction of free data packages, extended to the end of 2020, was a short-term solution to improve mobile internet connectivity in Malaysia. To embrace the longer-term challenges stemming from the increased data consumption, the local mobile ecosystem is currently working to improve network capacity and coverage. The PRIHATIN stimulus package committed the mobile operators to invest MYR 400 million (USD 97 million) to improve their backhaul infrastructure. Malaysia introduced the National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP) in 2019, to drive the upgrades of digital infrastructure, especially in rural areas. The National Digital Network Plan (JENDELA), developed by the National Digital Infrastructure Lab (NDIL), substituted the NFCP in 2020. Its main goals are: rolling out new base stations and 4G upgrades of the existing ones, phasing out 3G networks by the end of 2021; increasing 4G coverage to 97% and download speeds to 35 Mbps by 2022; and rolling out 5G networks.

Opensignal data shows that Malaysia’s mobile operators not only had to face an outstanding surge in mobile data consumption following the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic but also that they faced a much greater challenge compared to what other operators in neighboring countries experienced. For example, our users on both Celcom and Maxis saw significant declines in Download Speed Experience between April 2020 and April 2021 — by 39.3% and 41.6%, respectively. To increase the capacity of their networks (and meet JENDELA’s requirements), three Malaysian operators — Celcom Axiata, Digi Telecommunications and Maxis — signed a 20-year agreement in March 2021 to jointly develop and share fiber infrastructure. This will help the operators to deploy fiber backhaul to base stations more efficiently and in effect will improve 4G coverage and prepare the country for the future 5G upgrades.