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“Digital inclusion” is the ability to access, and benefit from, online opportunities. Decades of research on the digital divide has found that digital exclusion can result from lack of connectivity, as well as more complex factors including abilities, affordability and attitudes, or a combination of these (Helsper, 2008; Helsper, 2012; Van Deursen et al, 2017; Van Deursen & van Dijk, 2014; Van Dijk, 2005).

People living in remote regions have historically been more likely to face digital exclusion, due to a lack of internet access in these areas. The cost of building and maintaining telecommunications infrastructure for small populations based in isolated areas often rules out market-based solutions to this problem. In response, many governments have developed market design mechanisms that transfer some of the consumer surplus from one group into an implicit subsidy for another group, a practice known as Universal Service Provision (USP) or Universal Service Obligations (USO).

While the Malaysian government seems to have comprehensive USP policies and programs, some regions have partially or wholly missed out on communications infrastructure. New efforts by the State Government of Sarawak, in east Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, promise to address these gaps. In this report, we examine the prospects for digital inclusion in remote Sarawak, assessing both existing infrastructure needs and the potential social benefits of improved infrastructure.

The research presented in this report took place in 11 remote villages located along the Baram River (see Figure 1, page 5), a region characterised by a general lack of infrastructure and services, and with limited road, river, or air access. We found that internet adoption in this region is still very low: 64 per cent of people living in these communities were not accessing the internet, compared with 22 per cent of Malaysians overall (MCMC, 2016a). Given that connecting to the internet requires significant effort for people living in these villages (including, in some instances, travel to other locations), this result is unsurprising. However, even within this environment of scarce connectivity, many people were making the best of their circumstances, and using low-bandwidth applications to coordinate individual and group activities where possible.

Most of our study participants (82 per cent) owned a device such as a mobile phone or smartphone. People in villages without connectivity used their devices whenever they visited the city, or an area where access was possible. Many also used their device for offline activities when no internet was available. Younger participants, in particular, were able to creatively solve a range of challenges they experienced where internet connectivity was absent or unreliable; they were confident in their skills across a range of practices, and shared new practices with each other. Older participants struggled at times to use more sophisticated practices, but many emphasised the importance of ICTs for connecting with children and other family members. Participants identified a range of ways in which the presence and reliability of internet infrastructure would improve their lives, including economic and social development, as well as cultural maintenance.

Our research suggests the single most effective strategy for achieving digital inclusion in Sarawak is to provide remote villages with reliable, affordable, publicly accessible internet infrastructure.

The research underpinning this report involved a qualitative examination of the context of internet use in remote Sarawak, in order to better understand internet use in relation to other resources and capacities. Because the region where the research took place has not been included in national-level surveys, we also administered a face-to-face survey in 11 villages in order to generate basic data on internet access and use.

This research was conducted as part of the Cultural Enterprise Through Mobile Media Project, and took place between 2015 and 2017. The broader project aimed to ascertain whether the use of mobile media technologies and the internet can lead to sustainable cultural enterprise in remote villages in Sarawak. Because digital inclusion is a precondition of sustainable online enterprise, this report focuses primarily on how this inclusion might be achieved.

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