The Maldives’ two main internet service providers (ISPs) have dramatically upgraded their speed and network capacity, potentially heralding the beginning of a connectivity ‘arms race’ – at least in the country’s capital.
The Maldives’ major telecommunications player, Dhiraagu, recently introduced home and business incarnations of a 10 Mbps (megabits per second) broadband ADSL package, an offering it claims “is the first time in the Maldives home users can experience speeds up to 10 Mbps.”
In comparison, the average broadband speed in the UK is 3.6 Mbps, according to the country’s communications watchdog Ofcom.
Dhiraagu also upgraded the accounts of its existing ADSL customers, doubling their download speeds and in many cases tripling download allowances without additional charges. The feedback from customers, says Dhiraagu’s Marketing & Communications Manager Mohamed Mirshan Hassan, has been “very encouraging.”
“We periodically review the service based on our analysis of customer demands,” he noted.
The move, surprisingly generous by the standards of any ISP, could be a reaction to the decision by relative newcomer Focus Infocom (a private company partnered with companies such as Wataniya and Singtel) to unroll ‘fibre to the home’ (FTTH) technology.
Until now the company has delivered internet services through cable suppliers Bnet and Medianet under the Raajje Online (ROL) brand, over coaxial cable.
“We have to pay the providers and we don’t get refunded for downtime,” explains Jinah Ibraheem, ROL’s head of sales. “The network can be quite congested and we receive the complaints.”
FTTH, essentially a fibre-optic cable laid to the customer’s very door, allows ROL offer dedicated internet services to customers at speeds up to 10Mbps, “with the potential to offer speed on demand if people need faster speeds like 20Mbps or even 50Mbps connections.”
Moreover the speed is symmetrical, making uploading as fast as downloading – a boon for people like photography hobbyists who need to upload pictures or movies to websites like Flickr or YouTube, or otherwise work online.
However unlike ADSL, which is older and more widespread, the price of entry for FTTH is high – ROL is currently charging a connection fee of Rf7500 (US$550), putting it out of reach for all but businesses and upmarket individuals, and existing cable customers who the company states on their website can upgrade without cost.
Jiinah acknowledges that ROL is catering to “a higher end of the market” with its FTTH offering, but notes that “with a dedicated 10Mbps cable you’re not sharing it with anyone else. With unlimited access you’re sharing from a single pool, but now people are moving back to limited packages because they want speed.”
In developed countries such as the UK, dedicated cables are extremely expensive because of the distances involved and are most commonly used only by businesses, which split the bandwidth across offices. FTTH is perhaps a rare advantage of Male’s congestion and relatively short distances.
If anything, FTTH is the triumph of a geographical information system that has been under development for 9-10 years, Jinah says, that is able to make sense of the jumble of cables buried under Male’: “There’s few records available and 3-4 companies putting cables into the ground – STELCO, the two cable providers, and Dhiraagu.”
While internet surfers in Male’ will be rejoicing at the prospect of further competition between the two ISPs, the outlook for connectivity in the islands is not so positive. Networking an island chain is an expensive proposition, with Dhiraagu the clear leader through its rollout of WiMAX – a technology that wirelessly connects the customer and the provider across the ‘last mile’, much like a high-powered WiFi connection, but suffers over long distances.
“For further rollout serivces we are not using ASDL technology,” explains Mirshan. “We are connecting 25 islands or so using WiMAX, which I would say is really a competing technology with 3G (the mobile data network).”
Jinah claims the speed of WiMAX “can be very slow, at least compared with broadband.”
ROL is only present on a limited number of islands, riding on the back of cable TV connections: “Dhiraagu been in this market for 21 years and we’ve only been here for seven,” he defends.
“It’s not going to be easy for us to start a business on the islands,” he admits, “but I’m happy to commit bandwidth [to the islands] for resellers to sell on to say 30-60 customers.”
Beyond commercial battling, both ISPs are attempting to build their brands and expand the market for internet services, particularly among the young. Dhiraagu leverages its massive mobile marketing machine and sponsorship of large sporting events, while ROL appears to be relying more on word-of-mouth among its many high-end users.
Jinah explains he is attempting to start an IT association in the country, with the eventual goal of transforming IT “into a third industry, after tourism and fishing.”
“Why not IT?” he asked. “We have many good quality IT graduates, and [institutions such as] the National Centre for Technology not really being used by the government.”
ROL is also considering how it can assist the country’s fledgling open source software community, as well as teach school children how to use the internet. But the legislation has a way to catch up.
‘I’ve spoken to the Chamber of Commerce about developing the industry,” Jinah says. “But there’s currently no copyright law and no cyber law, so for instance there’s no way to charge someone if they were to hack into the government.”
However Minister for Civil Aviation and Communication Mahmoud Razee is positive the government can lead an internet revolution.
“Internet linkages are vital because of the way we a spread geographically,” he explains. “We can use it to bring services closer to people, which is one of the reasons why we’re looking at e-government initiatives. People will be able to do things like apply for drivers licenses online, or request a birth or death certificate. At the same time we’re trying to reduce the amount of paper used by the government. However we have to work to get the internet connected to all islands.”