Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mobile 3G prepaid broadband in Malaysia : Celcom vs Maxis comparison


Whenever there are school or public holidays coming around, many Singaporeans will head over to Malaysia for vacations, whether self-drive, or taking bus/coach to places like Malacca, Genting, Kelantan or perhaps via a plane trip to Kuala Lumpur or Penang. And one of the first things that we look out for (besides food of course) would be prepaid mobile broadband access.

For the past few holidays that we have been travelling to Malaysia on driving holidays, we have alternately tried out the prepaid mobile broadband packages from Celcom Xpax X2 and Maxis Hotlink. The following is a review of the experiences we have had on these two providers.

Celcom claims to have the widest mobile coverage in Malaysia. Based on our usage that seems to be a reasonable claim. The catch is that they did not say at what speed that coverage is supposed to be at. Actual transfer speeds we experienced were usually less than 10 KB/sec and sometimes as low as 1-2 KB/sec, which really does kind of stretch the definition of "broadband" somewhat. At these speeds, it was hardly useable even with images turned off.

Apparently Celcom had clamped down prepaid broadband speeds to EDGE or 2G mode only. We managed to find a Celcom Blue shop in Malacca and asked the counter staff about this, as we saw an iPhone 4 demo unit running in 3G mode. They confirmed with us that 3G speeds are only available to postpaid customers. Not quite sure whether this is an "official" reply regarding policy, but our experiences seemed to agree with this.

Maxis on the other hand stated upfront that their prepaid mobile broadband speeds would be up to 384 kbps.  We tried out Maxis Hotlink after putting away the Celcom card, and in practice we managed to get actual transfer speeds of 30-40 KB/sec over 3G, which is close enough to the claimed 384 kbps. This was seen both in the Huawei mobile broadband software and over on Speedtest.net testing.

Speed-wise, it was fast enough for casual surfing and browsing, though you would still want to think twice about downloading larger files, or using anything that is more bandwidth-intensive. Youtube videos loaded okay, just don't expect to be able to enable the HQ or HD options though. Coverage-wise, Maxis Hotlink was quite good, and we achieved 3G speeds around the hotels and shopping malls in Malacca, and even along stretches of the North-South Highway.

Availability-wise, Maxis Hotlink 3G SIM cards and packages are starting to become available at more places, especially along the crucial North-South Highway E2, where they have opened up more counters recently at rest points in recent months. You would find Celcom Blue being sold at one rest station, and there would be a Maxis Hotlink counter at another station down the road.

If there is one thing that could be improved with Maxis, it's that the language option of their SMS menu system defaults to Malay, which immediately befuddles all of their foreign customers who do not speak the language. Other than that small issue, Maxis probably offers the best value proposition in prepaid mobile broadband for Malaysia so far.

As for Digi, we have not tried it out personally, but based on reports from forum users, it is supposedly somewhere in between Celcom and Maxis, hovering around 10-20 KB/sec in typical urban locations. Good reviews from fellow forummers and users are one thing, but on the other hand, the 3G SIM cards or broadband packages for Digi are apparently harder to come by. Perhaps the lack of availability of Digi's 3G SIM cards is due to an as-yet under-developed retail distribution network.

With time, we hope that for the continued development of broadband services in Malaysia, Celcom would enable full 3G access speeds for pre-paid customers, for Digi to improve their speeds and retail distribution channels, and for Maxis to default to English menus or at least provide an easy way to switch to English for their foreign customers travelling to the country.

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