Tue, 04 Feb 2003

Govt to install phone lines in rural areas for vote-counting

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The government is planning to install telephone lines in 43,022 villages outside Java within the next three years in a bid to improve telecommunications in the world's largest archipelagic nation.

State Minister for Communications and Information Syamsul Mu'arif said on Monday that the government had decided to install telephone lines in 7,500 remote villages in Sumatra, Kalimantan and the eastern part of Indonesia this year.

"Establishing telephone lines in these villages will speed up counting ballots in the 2004 elections," Syamsul said after a cabinet meeting.

Indonesia is expected to hold elections between May and August next year to elect its president and vice president, as well as legislature.

"Aside from this, the government has a duty to provide telecommunications services for people across the country," he said.

Minister of Transportation Agum Gumelar, meanwhile, said that the government had allocated Rp 90 billion (US$10.2million) for the construction of fixed telephone lines in 2003 alone.

"The funding will be taken from the state and regional budgets. In 2004, we will reach another 17,000 villages, and the rest in 2005," said Agum.

The announcement came after the government, bowing to public pressure, canceled the telephone tariff increase designed to help state-owned telecommunications company PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia (Telkom) expand its business.

PT Telkom officials had threatened to freeze expansion should the government fail to raise telephone charges.

Currently, only 3.7 percent of the country's 215 million people have telephone lines at home, only 0.2 percent of which are in rural areas.

Worse still, up to 70 percent of current subscribers of telephone lines are found on the island of Java, where close to 60 percent of the country's population live. Java accounts for one fifth of the country's land area.

Compared to neighboring countries, Indonesia lags behind in terms of telecommunications development. In Singapore, for example, 58 percent of its population have fixed telephone lines at home, while this figure is 24 percent in Malaysia, and 10 percent in the Philippines.

Stressing the obligatory nature of the project, Agum said, "This is a non-profit project, but we will be very happy if there are phone operators who want to cooperate with us.

"To attract investors, though, we need to increase the telephone tariff, of course," he added.

There are speculations that the government will increase telephone rates in March after canceling a hike this month due to strong opposition from the public.

Syamsul added that the phone lines would be followed by a series of programs from his office and the ministry of home affairs, such as establishing a people's information hall in these villages.

"We will use the facilities to ensure a fair distribution of information in the country," the minister said.