Updates From Indonesia

I returned recently from another trip throughout Indonesia and want to share some observations and updates since the first time I visited two and a half years ago.

When I visited in 2015, 3G service was the norm, and even in densely-populated areas of Java and Bali, it was typical to see only two or three bars. Now, strong LTE service blankets much of both islands. That’s important: the only internet connection many people have is through their smartphone.

It’s also great for battery life. The iPhone X I used on this trip has a much bigger battery than the iPhone 6S I used last time, which obviously contributes to longer battery life, but so does the quality of the cellular signal.

One of the more notable changes is that most people are now carrying one smartphone, as opposed to the two or more per person that I saw previously. There are, I suspect, several reasons for this — phones are better, there’s better balance between performance and battery now, and high-end smartphones are more expensive — but, based on what I’ve been told and what I can figure out with the limited online reporting on this, it appears that Indonesian law now requires cellular plans with voice and SMS capabilities to be associated with a national ID number when they are registered. I don’t think this means that someone can’t have two or more cell plans, but my understanding is that it’s discouraged.

For that reason, I had a data-only plan purchased for me, with no voice or SMS capabilities. This time, I didn’t need to power-cycle my phone for my Telkomsel SIM to be recognized, but a weird thing happened where, because iMessage couldn’t send and receive its authentication text messages, it was unable to complete its setup on the Indonesian number.

The pre-paid SIM offer I got is no longer available, but it cost about $10 for 11GB. Instead of being in a single bucket of bytes, my data allotment was split: 7GB of general data, 2GB for WhatsApp and BBM, and 2GB for “VideoMax”. The general 7GB bucket was also split into different amounts for 3G and LTE data, and roaming within the country — the SIM card was purchased in Surabaya, but I travelled to Lombok, Bali, and Semarang as well. It wasn’t quite clear how this data was split up; all I know is that, after two weeks, I got a text message from Telkomsel that I had zeroed out my data allotment after using just 2GB, according to iOS’ cellular settings. Data continued to flow, however, without topping up the card.

I find this plan’s separation of data into different buckets confusing and ultimately unhelpful. If I don’t use WhatsApp or BBM, I forfeit 2GB of my plan; conversely, if I were a heavy user of these services, I would have to stop after 2GB was used, even if I had a lot of data available in the general bucket.

In addition to my phone, I also brought my MacBook Air on this trip: it’s a great — and legal — backup battery, and it means that I can offload photos from my SD card every evening and back them up for safety.

Unfortunately, MacOS tends to be quite aggressive about its internet use when given the opportunity, and there are limited controls to restrict it. For example, I have automatic software updates enabled, which means that hundreds of megabytes-to-gigabytes download in the background, even on lower-bandwidth connections. This is good for my computer’s security, but it can be a bit rude when using someone else’s internet connection with a monthly bandwidth cap, or a portable wireless hotspot. Furthermore, I use iCloud Photo Library, which tends to monopolize bandwidth while it uploads all those RAW photos.

There are controls to switch these functions off individually — though the button to pause iCloud Photo Library uploads did not reliably appear for me — but I feel like there should be some sort of global option to restrict the bandwidth consumption of these system service. MacOS could also do a better job managing this automatically. A third-party app called TripMode appears to work well for this — I just didn’t discover it in time for this trip.

Last time I visited, Samsung and LG phones were everywhere, but so, too, were BlackBerrys. Still. Now, the BlackBerrys are gone and, while the two giant Korean companies remain popular, newer brands from China are on the ascendance. Everywhere I went, I saw loads of people using phones from Vivo and Oppo. It was impossible to miss the giant green Oppo banners hung outside seemingly every phone vendor’s store. Both companies make shameless iPhone clones with iOS-styled versions of Android. iPhones remain very expensive in Indonesia: a 64 GB 4.7-inch iPhone 8 is Rp 12,599,000 — about $920 USD or nearly four months of minimum wage earnings in Jakarta.

Uber wasn’t able to make inroads in Southeast Asia, but two other companies have taken Indonesia by storm: Grab, which acquired Uber’s Southeast Asian business, and Go-Jek. Both operate platforms for multiple services. Go-Jek, appropriately, offers rides for a single person on a motorbike, but they also have car drivers and a partnership with Bluebird taxis for fixed-rate fares. In addition, they provide food delivery and even have a payment service built in. Based on what I’ve read, Grab is similar, but I only used Go-Jek.

On a non-technical note, leaving Indonesia for a second time was even harder than the first. It was and remains a beautiful country full of exceptionally generous people, delicious food, beautiful weather, and a depth and breadth of culture. I can’t wait until I get to go back.