The Digital Highway: ASEAN’s Push for Broadband and Internet Infrastructure

This article is part of our regular series on ASEAN infrastructure. To explore more insights and delve deeper into the topic, click here to see the latest posts.

In the contemporary era, the lines demarcating the physical and virtual worlds are increasingly blurring. While urban hubs in ASEAN have been early adopters of technological innovations, it’s the transformation seen in the more remote corners of the region that stands as a testament to the pervasive nature of the digital revolution.

From the terraced hills of Northern Thailand to the isolated islands of the Philippines, the footprint of digital connectivity has expanded rapidly, catalyzed by the introduction of 3G and 4G technologies.

A significant offshoot of this expanded network access has been the democratisation of financial services. Before the mobile internet boom, vast sections of the rural populace in nations such as Cambodia and the Philippines were effectively cut off from the mainstream banking system.

With the advent of 4G, there’s been a meteoric rise in mobile banking and micro-finance platforms. People in far-flung areas can now make transactions, apply for loans, or even invest in assets with a few taps on their smartphones, something that was inconceivable just a decade ago.

But the digital wave hasn’t stopped at banking.

ASEAN nations, especially countries like Indonesia, are witnessing staggering levels of social media penetration.

Platforms such as Facebook, and Instagram, and local apps like Gojek aren’t just used for socializing but have morphed into essential tools for business, education, and even governance.

In Indonesia, for instance, with its sprawling archipelago, social media isn’t just about connecting with friends; it’s about connecting with the world, promoting local businesses, and creating communities that bridge the vast geographical divides.

Moreover, the significance of these developments extends beyond mere connectivity. In ASEAN, where cultures are diverse and traditions deep-rooted, the digital realm is becoming a melting pot, fostering understanding, collaboration, and shared aspirations among its member states.

With each passing day, as more individuals gain access to this global network, the collective consciousness of the region is being reshaped, marking a paradigm shift from insular communities to an integrated, forward-looking ASEAN.

Historical Disparities & Modern Strides

A striking transformation in ASEAN’s digital journey has been Cambodia’s evolution. Historically lagging in terms of digital infrastructure, Cambodia underwent a veritable digital renaissance in the last decade.

Central to this transformation has been the development and expansion of its fibre optic infrastructure. This not only augmented the country’s broadband capacities but also reshaped the entire digital landscape.

The newly laid fibre optic networks enabled high-speed internet access even in remote parts of the country, bridging the digital divide and ushering in an era of increased connectivity and opportunity for all.

A Mobile-First Region: The Rise of the Smartphone

While digital penetration grew, the device dynamics in the ASEAN region showcased a distinctive trend. Unlike the West, where computers were the primary gateways to the internet, in ASEAN, the journey was largely mobile-first.

The majority of the population in countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have experienced the digital world primarily through their smartphones.

For many, these handheld devices are not just their first but their only window to the online realm. This skew towards smartphones has led to a unique digital ecosystem, with apps and services tailored specifically for mobile users.

The ubiquity of smartphones has catalysed myriad societal transformations. In the Philippines, for instance, where a significant portion of the population works overseas, digital communication has revolutionized familial ties.

Before, the vast diaspora, spread across countries from the Middle East to North America, would go months, if not years, without direct communication with families back home.

Now, video calls, instant messaging, and social media allow for real-time connection, diminishing the distances and making the world feel a little smaller, a little more connected.

From Digital Laggards to Leaders: The Regional Pivot

The aforementioned developments underscore a broader trend across the region.

No longer are countries like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia mere spectators in the digital realm. With concerted investments, policy reforms, and collaborations, these nations are swiftly pivoting from being digital laggards to potential leaders.

The implications of this widespread digital transformation are profound. Not only is it enabling economic growth, promoting education, and fostering cultural exchanges, but it’s also laying the foundation for a more unified and cohesive ASEAN — a region truly interconnected, not just by land, sea, and air, but by bytes and bits.

Undersea Cable Projects: Bolstering Digital Connectivity

A major component of ASEAN’s digital infrastructure expansion has been its involvement in global undersea cable projects.

These submarine cables are vital in enhancing internet speed, reducing latency, and providing resilience against network disruptions.

The Southeast Asia–Japan 2 (SJC2) cable stands as a significant testament to this commitment.

Spanning multiple countries, this cable connects Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, Korea, and Japan.

This project amplifies the region’s international bandwidth capacity and is pivotal in assuring consistent and fast internet access for its burgeoning digital population.

Cambodia’s digital infrastructure, in particular, is set for a transformative leap.

The forthcoming completion of the Hong Kong-Phnom Penh submarine fibre optic cable network project by 2024 marks a pivotal moment in the nation’s digital journey.

Funded through a loan from the Chinese government, this $165-million venture aims to bolster Cambodia’s internet architecture, catering to its growing user base which boasts more than 17 million SIM internet users and over 310,000 fixed internet users.

This ambitious initiative will not only enhance internet speed and reliability across Cambodia but also reflects the government’s commitment to digital advancement, evident in collaborations such as the one with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.

With the infrastructure in place, including 640 kilometres of submarine fibre optic cable network and 38 internet service providers, Cambodia is poised to be a formidable player in the ASEAN digital arena.

Singapore, on the other hand, has further entrenched its position as a critical juncture in the global digital network.

Serving as a nexus for undersea cables, the city-state has become indispensable in data exchange, not only regionally but globally.

Currently, Singapore is interlinked with over 15 submarine cable systems and boasts connections to more than 400 cities worldwide.

The concerted efforts of individual ASEAN nations and their collaborative undertakings signify a shared vision of a digitally interconnected future.

These undersea cable projects, among other infrastructural enhancements, serve as the backbone for this vision, ensuring that the region remains competitive, resilient, and future-ready in the digital age.

Rise of the Smart Cities: A Digital Renaissance in ASEAN

The digital wave sweeping across ASEAN has brought about an urban metamorphosis: the birth and nurturing of smart cities.

These urban centres, characterized by the fusion of digital technologies with civic infrastructure, promise a life of greater efficiency, convenience, and sustainability for their residents.

Phuket, Thailand

Dubbed as the ‘Pearl of the Andaman’, Phuket is not just known for its pristine beaches anymore. The island is at the forefront of Thailand’s smart city vision. A part of the Thai government’s “Thailand 4.0” initiative, Phuket’s transformation is evident in its various urban projects:

Smart Traffic Management: Leveraging IoT sensors and AI-powered analytics, Phuket is actively addressing its traffic congestion issues. Real-time data gathered from streets helps in dynamic traffic light control, ensuring smoother flow during peak hours.

Waste Management Solutions: IoT-enabled bins across the city provide alerts for timely disposal, ensuring cleanliness while optimizing waste collection routes.

Integrated Public Transport Systems: Digital payment solutions, combined with real-time tracking of buses and ferries, offer residents and tourists alike a seamless transportation experience.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

The capital city of Brunei is embarking on its journey to becoming a smart city, with a focus on enhancing the quality of life for its citizens and ensuring sustainability:

Digital Payment Platforms: With the introduction of platforms like BruPay, the city is moving towards a cashless ecosystem, making transactions quicker and more secure for its citizens.

Energy Management: Leveraging renewable energy sources and implementing energy-efficient solutions, Bandar Seri Begawan is focusing on reducing its carbon footprint. Smart grids help in distributing energy based on demand, ensuring minimal wastage.

E-Government Services: The city is digitizing its public services, making bureaucratic processes quicker and more transparent. Citizens can now access various services online, from paying utilities to obtaining permits.

These endeavours in Phuket and Bandar Seri Begawan are merely the tip of the iceberg. Across ASEAN, cities are investing heavily in digital technologies to address urban challenges, improve the quality of life for their residents, and set a global benchmark for what modern, sustainable urban living should look like.

As these cities evolve, they not only become more efficient but also act as hubs for innovation, attracting talent and investments from around the globe.

Singapore: The Digital Vanguard

In the realm of digital advancement, Singapore stands tall, leading not just the ASEAN region but also making its mark on the global stage. Its strategic initiatives and investments have cemented its position as a digital vanguard.

A Global Data Center Hub: Singapore’s rise as a global data centre hub is backed by a combination of factors that make it immensely attractive for tech behemoths:

Strategic Location: Nestled at the crossroads of major data routes, Singapore offers unparalleled connectivity to major markets in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Climate of Stability: With a history of political stability, robust regulatory frameworks, and pro-business policies, Singapore provides an environment that multinationals find conducive to long-term investments.

Cutting-Edge Infrastructure: State-of-the-art facilities equipped with advanced cooling systems and energy-efficient technologies make Singapore’s data centres some of the most sophisticated globally.

Tech Giants Planting Roots: The trust in Singapore’s digital capabilities is evident from the investments by global technology titans:

  • Google: The tech giant has announced plans to build its third data centre in Singapore, which, once completed, will bring its total investment in Singapore’s data centres to $850 million. This move is a testament to the city-state’s strategic importance in Google’s Asia-Pacific strategy.
  • Facebook: In 2018, Facebook unveiled plans for a billion-dollar data centre in Singapore, its first custom-built facility in Asia. Spanning an 11-story building, this data centre is designed to be ultra-efficient in terms of energy utilization and is a testament to Singapore’s appeal as a tech hub.
  • Alibaba Cloud: Alibaba’s cloud computing arm has been expanding its presence in Singapore, given the city-state’s reputation as a launchpad for businesses eyeing the Southeast Asian market. Their data centre here supports a wide range of services, from machine learning to data analytics.

Nurturing the Digital Ecosystem: Beyond just hosting data centres, Singapore has been active in fostering a thriving digital ecosystem.

The government’s Smart Nation initiative is a multi-pronged strategy aimed at harnessing the power of networks, data, and technologies to improve living standards, create economic opportunities, and build a closer community.

In conclusion, Singapore’s digital strategy is a tapestry of vision, investment, and execution. Its position as a digital powerhouse is not merely by circumstance but by design, backed by decades of forward-thinking policies and relentless pursuit of excellence.

Challenges & The Road Ahead

ASEAN’s burgeoning digital landscape, though dotted with achievements, is also replete with challenges that the region must navigate astutely.

Digital Censorship & Freedom

As the internet becomes more ubiquitous, several ASEAN nations grapple with the issue of digital censorship. Countries like Vietnam and Thailand have periodically come under scrutiny for internet censorship, curtailing freedom of speech, and suppressing dissenting views.

This not only raises human rights concerns but also potentially stymies the flow of information, essential for innovation and global collaboration.

Cybersecurity Concerns

Digital expansion has inevitably come with increased vulnerabilities.

As more data gets transferred and stored online, it becomes a lucrative target for cyberattacks.

Nations like Singapore have experienced sophisticated cyberattacks in recent years, emphasizing the need for more robust cybersecurity frameworks across ASEAN.

China’s Growing Influence

China’s involvement in the region’s digital infrastructure, both as an investor and as a technology provider, has raised eyebrows.

Projects funded or powered by Chinese tech giants come with concerns about potential surveillance, data privacy, and undue influence in the digital domain.

The region needs to weigh the economic benefits against potential strategic vulnerabilities.

Equitable Access

As cities and urban areas surge ahead in the digital race, there’s a risk that rural and remote regions might be left behind, deepening the digital divide. Ensuring that digital infrastructure benefits reach all corners of the ASEAN region is critical for holistic growth.

Sustainability of Rapid Expansion

The feverish pace of infrastructure growth needs to be balanced against environmental and social considerations. As data centres proliferate, their considerable energy demands could pose challenges in terms of environmental sustainability.

Data Privacy & Ethical Tech Use

In the wake of global debates around data privacy, there’s a pressing need for ASEAN nations to develop robust frameworks that protect user data.

Ensuring ethical tech use, where technologies serve the populace without infringing on their rights, is paramount.

The road ahead for ASEAN’s digital journey is both promising and fraught with challenges. As the region continues to knit itself digitally, it must simultaneously address the multifaceted concerns that arise. By adopting a balanced approach, one that harmoniously integrates growth with ethics, security, and inclusivity, ASEAN can truly harness the digital age’s full potential.

This article is part of our series on infrastructure in ASEAN nations, subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with new releases and other analyses from Aseanz.


* indicates required

Intuit Mailchimp