Cellphones are ubiquitous in Indonesia. If it seems as though everyone has one, or two, that’s probably because they do. As one of the strongest symbols representing the modern age, cellphones provide a lot of common ground for people from all walks of life to stand on. Still, with all the similarities this collective “cellphone culture” propagates between Americans and Indonesians, adjustments to that culture in Indonesia have taken time.

According to World Bank there were 132 cellphones for every 100 people in Indonesia in 2015. Not very far off from the United States’ 118 per every 100 people in the same year. But just ten years prior, in 2005, that number was a mere 21 for every 100 people compared to a reasonable 68 to every 100 in the US. For Indonesia that was an increase of 529 percent over ten years. Needless to say, cellphones have been a source of great cultural and societal change in Indonesia.

Where to buy

Getting a cellphone in Indonesia is not difficult and nor will it break the bank. Little stores offering various mobile devices and accessories can be found everywhere. Even in my very small, very rural area there are many little shopfronts selling everything you’d need to bring yourself into the twenty-first century.

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A pop-up stand selling Telkomsel SIM cards outside of Prambanan temple. Bought my mom a SIM card while she was here. These things are farily common as well.

Pulsa

One of the things I had the hardest time coming to understand was the concept of pulsa. Essentially, pulsa means credits. One rupiah purchases one pulsa. Pulsa is what’s used to purchase services from cellular carriers in Indonesia. Pulsa can also be used directly to make calls, send SMS messages, and access the internet; however, it’s much more economical to first purchase some sort of package or plan before doing any of those things.

Pulsa can be purchased literally everywhere. One need not find a cellphone supply store or any sort of specific store at all. Every shop is able to sell pulsa. There is usually a physical book where a customer will write down their phone number, the date, and how much pulsa they wish to purchase. The shopkeeper will press some buttons in their own phone and after a couple seconds or minutes the buyer will get a message saying they’ve received more pulsa.

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A view into a typical shop found on Java. This is where I used to buy pulsa in my desa. They hang a lot of products from the ceiling.
The storefront transaction is pretty easy but I didn’t find that process quite easy enough. Having to interact with an Indonesian I don’t know just to buy more phone credits got kind of old so now I have my Peace Corps bank account set up so that all I have to do is send a message from my phone to my cellular service provider and money is withdrawn from my account and directly converted to pulsa. Very handy for when I don’t want to deal with a shopkeeper. I can also send pulsa to another volunteer’s phone and get physical money from them in exchange.

Plans

Almost all phone plans are pre-paid (98% of them, at least) and there are no carrier contracts which is quite the opposite of what seems to be the norm for most Americans. Switching to a new carrier is as easy as going to one of those ever-present cellphone shops and picking up a new SIM card. There is a lot more flexibility with how cellular customers pay for the services they want in Indonesia.

Overall, cellphones are fairly inexpensive to maintain. The prices vary greatly depending on carrier but Peace Corps Indonesia provides volunteers 250,000 rupiah each month specifically for communication. My go-to plan for my own phone costs 130,000 rupiah (about ten dollars) and comes with four gigabytes of anywhere data, five gigabytes of 4G only data, 400 text messages, and 100 minutes.

That plan is usually much more than I need and I don’t buy it all that often. What I do nowadays is use a WiFi hotspot from a smaller, less expensive carrier. For 150,000 rupiah I can get nine gigabytes of anytime data, and 12 gigabytes of data that can only be used between midnight and seven in the morning.

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A cellphone shop in my area. This is where I bought my WiFi hotspot.

Carriers

Indonesia has three major carriers. Telkomsel, a state-owned corporation, is the largest with 140 million subscribers followed by Three and Indosat Ooredoo each with about 60 million subscribers. Telkomsel provides the best coverage but is also the most expensive. Three and Indosat are more economical but can be somewhat spotty.

Java (the world’s most populous island) is just about the perfect place for cell phones. With an average population density of 2,400 people per square mile it is much less expensive to install and maintain cellular networks here than it is in the United States. By contrast, New Jersey (the most densely populated state in the US) has a population density of 1,200 people per square mile. Part of the reason cellphone service is inexpensive here is because each customer pays for a tiny fraction of the network; whereas in America a cellphone user will have to pay for cell phone towers out in Montana and Oklahoma where there where population density is much less.

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Just a couple Peace Corps volunteers waiting for their juice by checking their cellphones. Typical.

Indonesians and their cellphones

If you have ever lamented about how young Americans are wasting their youth by staring at those tiny glowing rectangles all day, you will find no solace by coming to Indonesia. Over half of Indonesians now have a smartphone, up from only a quarter just two years ago. Many Indonesians carry around a smartphone and a classic brick phone. This way in case their smartphone dies they will still be able to make calls and send messages.

Another thing I’ve seen many Indonesians carrying around—which I have also adopted—is the power bank, or external battery. There are many instances when I am away from a plugin for long periods of time, such as in an angkot or on a bus, and having an additional source of power for my phone has been quite useful. People use their phones a lot here, so it makes a lot of sense to be able to charge on the go.

Selfies

Indonesians love their selfies. So do Americans, but it seems like Indonesians loves selfies a whole lot more. “Selfie?” is one of the most common questions I’m asked, if I’m asked at all. On a recent train ride to East Java with another volunteer an Indonesian man in the seat in front of us took a selfie with his phone raised to a very conspicuous height. He wasn’t trying to find that perfect angle to make it look like he had the right number of chins, he specifically took a selfie with me and another volunteer as the background. Occurrences like these are not all that rare, and they get very tiring.

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This was during the opening ceremony of Lisa’s English camp. The guy on the right took it upon himself to record the proceedings. Never mind the fact that he’s on a stage with about 80 students in front of him.
But as much as I am not a fan of the sneaky selfie the regular selfie is a pretty good way to get to talking to Indonesians. There have been many instances where I’ve been able to have good interactions after taking a selfie (or twenty) with an Indonesian family, or student, or angkot driver. I’d just like to know what they do with all those selfies.

GO-JEK

I think one of the most transformative aspects of having the internet at the fingertips of over two hundred million people is how commerce and labor have changed by this remarkable resource. There is no greater demonstration of this change than a mobile app called GO-JEK.

GO-JEK is a popular app in Indonesia that functions similarly to Uber, except it’s ten times better and super versatile. GO-JEK allows users to summon a motorcycle or car, to take them from one point to another. It also allows users to order food from any nearby restaurant. Users can order their groceries and prescription medicine. GO-JEK also allows users to order a masseuse, beautician, mechanic, or maid. It also can function as a courier service, think contracts and blueprints, or you can order a truck for larger shipments. There is very little GO-JEK can’t do. All of those services have come together and become easily accessible thanks to the proliferation of the cellphone.

This is my mom riding an Uber-branded ojek service in Yogyakarta. GO-JEK and Uber Motor (the name for the Uber ojek service) wear specific jackets so they are easily identified. As a Peace Corps volunteer I am not allowed to ride motorcycles during my service but my parents had no problem leaving me to find my own transportation so they could scoot around on the back of ojek.
The name GO-JEK is derived from ojek, a motorcycle taxi which is common in this part of the world.  GO-JEK originally focused on connecting ojek drivers to people who needed an ojek. GO-JEK has tapped into a large, underutilized labor market across Indonesia. Before GO-JEK ojek drivers spent much of their time waiting for people who needed their services to find them. Now GO-JEK connects driver and passenger instantly, through the app, helping both in the process.

There are many other apps similar to GO-JEK and all function as a sort of lubricant in the labor and services market allowing for service providers to be connected to customers much faster. Cellphones have helped bring about useful and meaningful change across the world and Indonesia in a relatively short amount of time.

5 thoughts on “Cellphones

  1. Hmmm… I always thought that Indonesian major carriers are Telkomsel, Indosat and XL… at least it was in the old days. So, Three is bigger than XL now ya?

    You are note allowed to ride motorcycle? That is interesting. Do you know why?

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    1. XL is still very large, but they have 15 million fewer subscribers than Three.

      Peace Corps volunteers around the world are, by default, prohibited from riding motorcycles. The purpose of that rule is to keep volunteers safe because many volunteers had been in accidents involving motorcycles. Some countries allow their volunteers to ride motorcycles, but not Indonesia, yet.

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      1. I see. I guess the main reason I though XL is in the big three because, when I left Indonesia, we only have Telkomsel, Indosat and XL.

        Yeah, I figured about the motorcycle ride. Hope it will be better in the future.

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  2. I love reading your post! Are there any 4-wheeler’s like I use to get around the farm?
    Also I could use some help with my cell phone, no one in the family has offered to help me like you.

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