YTL Comms & Facebook to be BFFs if Penang Terragraph trial succeeds

  • YES has opportunity to be key telco, FB the opportunity to prove technology’s worth
  • Govt sees broadband as key infrastructure to support growth of Digital Economy

 

Gobind Singh Deo watching the results of a speed test on the YES, Facebook wireless fibre network, Terragraph in Penang on Feb 18. Watching on to his right is YTL Communications executive director Yeoh Seok Hong.

“THE world will be watching Penang,” declared Yeoh Seok Hong, executive director of YTL Communications Sdn Bhd, which operates the data focused 4G operator, YES.

Gobind Singh Deo, Malaysia’s Minister of Communications and Multimedia says he is watching as well.

Even Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is interested in what’s going on in Penang.

Meanwhile, in Menlo Park, Facebook’s HQ, founder and CEO of Facebook is watching Penang as well. For, it could well be that, what he has failed to achieve so far in his own city of San Jose, he may well achieve in Penang. Over two years since Facebook and the mayor of San Jose announced they would roll out a city wide Terragraph network by early 2017, nothing has happened.

Which is why the March 1 launch of the pilot of a wireless high speed network that Facebook has developed called Terragraph, takes on a heightened significance for it.

Terragraph is a gigabit technology based on WiGig, an enhancement to the WiFi standard that Facebook introduced three years ago under its Telecom Infra Project (TIP) with co-founders Deutsche Telekom, SK Telecom, Intel and Nokia. Operating in the unlicensed 60GHz band of the radio system, it aims to deliver much higher connectivity speeds at much lower costs.

And although Terragraph has two mobile operators and a telco vendor as co-founders, to most of the telco world, Terragraph is viewed with caution as a possible attempt by Facebook to own its own network and become a direct competitor.

Facebook however insists it not keen to be a telco operator and positions Terragraph as a possible solution to the challenge cities face in providing urban area capacity and high speed internet access at much lower costs than laying fibre, which is why Terragraph is sometimes called wireless fibre. It has no commercial motives here, it insists. But not many, especially in the telco world, believe it.

‘We recognise the limitations in rolling out fibre quickly’

Whatever Facebook’s true intentions are, what really interests Gobind is the promise of very high speeds delivered over a network with a light physical touch and much lower costs than any traditional fiber rollout. The minister has been quick to realise that just relying on fiber is inadequate to achieving the National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan launched last year that aims to provide Malaysians with pervasive, high quality and affordable connectivity.

“We recognise the limitations in rolling out fibre quickly, hence why we are looking at other connectivity methods.”

Gobind, who is focused on delivering his ministry’s vision of providing all Malaysians with affordable, quality broadband speeds, anywhere, anytime is also driven by a sense of urgency.

“We don’t have the luxury of time and need to find the best solutions for our challenges. We want to see if Terragraph can indeed complement fiber and move things quicker.”

Gobind’s desire for quick solutions to Malaysia’s connectivity challenge is driven by an economic need as well. He is cognizant of the fact that today, nations do not just depend on broadband infrastructure as a means to connect to a network but where it serves a greater purpose as an engine of economic development and enhancing innovation capabilities. He wants Malaysia to be bold in trying new solutions and he wants Malaysians to lead.

Yet, right now only 18% of Malaysian households are connected to high speed broadband, says Gobind who believes that Malaysia needs “more high speed fixed broadband infrastructure to support the growth of our Digital Economy and to tap the opportunities that will present themselves.”

Which is why he shared that the government will be announcing a minimum standards benchmark for all telcos in regards to the speed Malaysians can expect. “It will be at least 30MBs. We are serious about establishing such standards. We want to make sure we have broadband infrastructure of world class standard.” The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) is currently working on the exact standards.

YES looking ahead at mobile 5G

For YTL Communications, whose executive director, Yeoh, likes to remind people, was the first 4G operator in Malaysia (a data network though, not voice), the government’s eagerness to explore any technology that can provide high speed and affordable connectivity at scale is its ticket to finally becoming a serious player in Malaysia’s telco scene. Despite having invested RM4 billion so far, it has failed to attract any substantial non-student customer base and does not share what its subscriber base is as well.

Its main challenge in competing in the market, says Yeoh, has been that it is operating on a TD-LTE (Time Division-Long Term Evolution) platform where there are too few mobile devices for consumers to choose from. This has resulted in the company losing RM2 billion since its launch in 2010, says Yeoh. But he predicts better days ahead as it has been awarded some spectrum in the 800MHz band and can now compete and offer 4G voice services.

But the key focus now is on ensuring the Terragraph trial goes well. “And for that we are lucky to have a good friend in Facebook that gives us lots of engineering insights to help us optimise the network,” says Wing Lee, the CEO of YES.

Offering an analogy of the pilot as being a moonshot, an exaggeration perhaps, Wing says it will never be a straight path “but you adjust course along the way. After all, this is a large scale pilot (Georgetown’s population stands at over 710,000) and the first in a tropical climate with rain fade and other challenges.”   

Wing also let in that YES is looking beyond Terragraph at 5G with the engineering experience and knowhow it will acquire over the course of the six-month trial and on to the commercial launch, helping it prepare to “sharpen our chops for mobile 5G”.

Whitepaper to be released at end of six-month Georgetown pilot

But first, there’s the trial at hand and Gobind offered YTL Communications some encouraging words as well, saying in his opening speech, “I hope you will not just succeed but surpass our expectations.”

But Gobind assures us that his desire for speedy solutions will not come at the expense of quality service to users. “Quality comes first and in fact I have stressed to Yeoh on my agenda to push for a reduction in prices and increase in speeds. At the same time, even our Prime Minister has expressed concern about the aesthetics of any urban connectivity system.”

In this sense Gobind was pleased with the elegant, light weight box that houses each Terragraph node. Indeed, with the nodes designed to be placed closely at intervals of up to 200 metres apart, a small unobtrusive footprint is essential.

For the Georgetown trial, the Terragraph nodes will be placed on street lights, power poles and even sides of buildings.

For both Facebook and YES, the lessons of this pilot will also be critical in improving the technology and in coming up with rollout best practices and templates for working with local authorities and governments. Which is why, Facebook will be releasing a case study on the lessons of the Georgetown rollout, its first Asian city and first with a tropical climate. It is running pilots in two small towns in Hungary with 50 and 150 homes respectively. Yes, that is not a typo. There is a whitepaper on the Terragraph site for the trial in the town with 150 homes.

No doubt that YTL Communications will be hoping that the whitepaper on the Georgetown pilot will pave the way for a state-wide commercial rollout with rates to be decided in consultation with the MCMC.

So, will it be Penang first, followed by the rest of the nation? It’s a great window of opportunity for YTL Communications and Facebook who should be BFFs if the project is successful.

 
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