Jakarta is a city of cafes, coffee shops, and mobile phones. With a mobile penetration hitting nearly 62% of the population, the world’s 4th most populace nation represents a huge market, and tremendous infrastructure challenges. With more than 50% of the country making less than $50/month, the percentage of people with access to mobile phones and the Internet is astonishing.

WarNet in Samarinda IndonesiaThis is very apparent when driving through villages that are well under the poverty line, such as you will drive through on the way from Balikpapan to Samarinda (in Eastern Borneo, East Kalimantan Province). A large percentage of the “homes” you pass would not have a prayer to hold water out of the “house” during a heavy rainstorm, but you will see many, if not most, of the residents carrying a mobile phone.

Most of the mobile phones are pre-paid, meaning of course the user pays up front for the handset and phone minutes, however even the poorest people have access to handsets.

The next interesting item is the ubiquitous “WarNet.” WarNet is actually a combination of two words, Warung (Café) and Internet. While not as available as mobile phones, nearly every village has one or two WarNet rooms, which (from my observation) have most of the available terminal stations filled with users.

As a large percentage of the population lacks disposable income needed to purchase their own computer, or Internet access, the WarNet is the only place young people (and older folk) are able to access and take advantage of either computers or network-enabled communications.

Strolling the streets of Samarinda after 2200, in an entirely unscientific poll, I was able to count about 2 WarNets per city block in the downtown area. A similar stroll earlier in Batam (a free port near Singapore) yielded similar results, with Jakarta only slightly less, probably due to the fact my unscientific strolling poll was confined to a relatively opulent area with more WiFi hotspots available at coffee shops such as Starbucks and the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, with patrons carrying their own laptop computers.

This did drop the number of WarNets to a scarce one per city block when you are off the main roads.

WarNets are Not Just for Fun

While the Korean Internet Café experience of the 1990s was fueled by insatiable demands for higher performance multi-user gaming networks, the Indonesian experience appears to be much more broad in scope. According to Mr. Ibenk, an official with the Indonesian Government’s Kominfo (national ICT organizer), WarNet’s serve the community by providing both exposure and low cost access to the Internet for students, business people, as well as access to social media and entertainment.

WarNet is downtown Batam Indonesia“Access to a WarNet costs users less than 3000 Rp (Indonesian Rupiah, around $.35) per hour. While still a reasonably high cost to a poor user, nearly everybody can afford at least a couple hours per week to access the network” added Ibenk.

WarNets are used by students, professionals, and from my observation a lot of foreign tourists trekking through both Jakarta and other more remote locations. Students spend a lot of time on the Internet, and it appears schools encourage use of WarNets for some students to access research, write reports (most WarNets also have sideline services such as printing, copying, and faxing), and as one student told me, they are now even submitting some homework assignments through the Internet.

You may question why this would be necessary, and the answer is simple – most schools in poor sections of Jakarta and most rural areas do not have sufficient budget to build ICT within their school or curriculum. However both students and teachers know that for a child to be competitive in the new wired world, they need exposure to Internet technologies to gain skills critical to their future success in a global economy.

Porn, hacking, and other nefarious use of WarNets

While it may seem unbelievable, most WarNet operators claim use of WarNet’s to access pornography and conduct illegal activities occurs, it is probably at a level much lower than we’d expect. “Niki,” a former WarNet operator in Sumatra now working as an ICT manager in Jakarta, explained “Indonesia is a Muslim majority country. Muslim’s may have a stricter social manner than in some other countries, and thus the negative uses of WarNet’s may be lower than you would expect.”

Not sure if that is entirely true, however most of the WarNet’s I visited during the past 10 days in Indonesia appeared to be meeting the objectives noted above. Just a lot of people chatting, researching, doing email, or using word processing programs (including Google Docs and MS Live Office). Cloud computing, whether the users know it or not, has actually made a very positive contribution to the community by providing applications and online storage that would not have been available just a couple years ago.

WarNets are a Positive Contributor to Indonesia

A report by Rudi Rusdiah, from APWKomtel, claims WarNet’s account for more than 40% of all Internet access in Indonesia. I’d believe that number is actually higher, given the number of WarNets I observed in rural areas throughout Java, Sumatra, and Kalimantan.

Rusdiah’s report includes a listing of the positive social impacts of WarNet’s, including:

  • Extending public Internet access to serve people with no computer or Internet access at home;
  • Providing value-addition to small and medium businesses in the community, strengthening the economy by creating employment and business opportunities;
  • With the support of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, setting up of Warsi (Warung Informasi or Information Centers) near small traditional industry clusters;
  • Providing Internet access and literacy to the small businesses in the community and cluster;
  • Promoting the products and services beyond local and traditional markets, to global and national reach;
  • With Open University and OSOL, programs to promote the use of IT as a tool for education;
  • Providing tourists, travelers and commuters with Internet access.

In a world where many governments struggle with bringing broadband Internet to every home as a public utility, developing nations need to exercise great creativity in delivering “any” internet access to the community. The WarNet provides that utility, and the creativity of Indonesians to find ways to deliver Internet to nearly every community in the country through use of satellite, microwave, mobile phones, DSL, and telephone access should be applauded.

Not the final solution, but with the world’s fourth most populace nation getting wired, we will expect a lot of new ideas from a lot of motivated Indonesians in the near future.

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