Thursday, October 05, 2006

Surf’s Up: Cables ’n’ Warnets

In our modern world, technology continues to evolve at an ever accelerating pace. The increasing speed of innovation ensures that attempts to predict the future of our electronic culture are a tricky undertaking. For example, in 1943, IBM chairman Thomas Watson said that, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." With slightly greater accuracy, Popular Mechanics magazine claimed in 1949 that, "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tonnes." Similarly, who would have predicted, even a few years ago, that Indonesia, with its atavistic, agrarian culture would have embraced mobile phones, DVDs and the Internet so readily and have become so techno savvy.

I have already cast a bloodshot eye over DVDs and mobile phones in this column, however, the Jakartan take on all things net wise certainly warrants a closer look. Let's take a look at home connections first. Many Jakartans are content to use a humble dial-up 56k connection although often speeds slowdown to a snail's pace and you start wondering if www really stands for worldwide wait. The most expedient dial-up server is Telkomnet Instan which dispenses with passwords, user names and separate ISP bills. The Internet charges conveniently show up on your phone bill at a rate of Rp165 per minute including the cost of the local phone call.

More ambitious net surfers can get hold of a cable modem and connect to Kabelvision's creaky system. The basic cable TV package costs Rp169,000 per month and then you have to pay around Rp.500,000 per month to an ISP for unlimited Web access. There are eight ISPs that offer cable Internet service in Jakarta: My Net, Link Net, Indo Net, Centrin, CBN, Indosat, Uni Net and Kabelvision themselves. Kabelvision make a ludicrously exaggerated claim that speeds of up to 2 MB (Megabytes) per second can be achieved through its cables. More realistically, CBN say that 64 kb (Kilobits) per second can be reached whilst My Net put their flag in the sand at 256 kb per second.

In reality, speeds are usually much lower than this when surfing the capital's cables, often down between 8 and 10 kb per second. The reason for this is that true broadband fibre-optic cables are only available on Jl. Sudirman and a few places around the central business district. The cables covering the rest of the city are of a low quality and are pretty poorly maintained, hence the frequently disrupted service. Newer, faster cables are being plumbed in around town as I write although Kabelvision seem in no hurry to complete the job, probably because deregulation in Indonesia's telecommunications sector will see them lose a lot of their business to My Net when these new cables come online.

It Kabelvision's patchy net service is driving you to reprogram your PC with an axe, then fear not, there is another option. Indosat's Star One service has been in operation for around a year. To use Star One you need a CDMA mobile phone and a USB cable with which to connect it to your computer. The mobile then acts as your modem (NB: GSM mobiles cannot be used). I've heard varying reports about the standard of Star One's service. Some people say can be pretty fast whilst others say it's patchy. However, the best thing about Star One is that it costs a mere Rp.200,000 for a prepaid package consisting of a massive one gigabyte of downloads. Further information can be gleaned from or from Star One centers in Roxy Mas, Mangga Dua and Ambassador Mall.

Those without a home net connection can visit one of Jakarta's many Warnet's (Warung Internet) and surf to their heart’s content extremely cheaply whilst imbibing endless Teh Botols. The capital’s youth can't seem to get enough of net based shenanigans and a cursory look at the bookmarks and address bar of your average Warnet computer will usually yield a selection of porno sites and chat rooms. Autocratic countries from Saudi Arabia to China are fearful of the transnational freedom of information that the Internet offers and have tried to control its propagation accordingly. Indonesia's nascent democracy, in contrast, has positively embraced the technology although perhaps at the expense of the country’s religion minded, porn-free status. Indonesian teens love chatting, as they call it, in Internet chat rooms. My experiences with such rooms have, on the whole, been bowel shatteringly tedious although I think it's healthy that youngsters can surf the net and hook up with other teenagers (or dribbling perverts pretending to be teenagers) throughout the world, thus broadening their horizons.

Unfortunately, ordering by credit card over the net in this country is now largely out of the question. Yes, it's Indonesia's corruption factor kicking in yet again I'm afraid. According to research by Clear, an e-security firm based in Texas, Indonesia is second only to the Ukraine on the cyber fraud list. Stories used to circulate of Warnets with secret second-floor rooms full of discounted goods for sale which had been obtained by carding. Carding is the act of purchasing merchandise on the Internet using stolen credit card numbers and IDs. Subsequently, most internet credit card privileges have been withdrawn from the country so you can forget about ordering that rare CD from Amazon. Ah well, you can always download it.

Simon Pitchforth