|Asia-Pacific III 2010
|Improving broadband penetration in Sri Lanka
|Anusha Palpita & Dr. Manodha Gamage
|Anusha Palpita, Director General & Dr. Manodha Gamage, Consultant, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission – Sri Lanka
|South Asian Telecommunication Regulator’s Council (SATRC)
Mr Anusha Palpita is the Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka; he is also the Chairman of South Asia Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (SATRC). Most recently he was the Director General of Government Information in Sri Lanka and Vice Chairman of Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization. In Sri Lanka, he has served in the President’s office as an Assistant Secretary and Accountant. Mr Palpita has served, as well, in the Ministry of Public Administration, the Police Department, Customs, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation as Chairman, in the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration and more. Anusha Palpita obtained his B.Com (SP) Degree from the University of Sri Jayawardanapura, Sri Lanka and an MBA from the University of Victoria, Melbourne.
Dr Manodha Gamage is a Consultant at Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. He is a Senior Visiting Lecturer at University of Moratuwa, IIT, SAITM, ICBT and Rajarata University, Sri Lanka, currently attached to the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. Previously, he worked at Freescale Semiconductor Japan Ltd as a System Solution Engineer involved in broadband mobile infrastructure design and development. He began his career at Sri Lanka Telecom as a Telecommunications Engineer. Dr Manodha Gamage received a BSc (Eng) in Electronics and Telecommunications from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka and his Masters Degree and PhD in Information Communication and Network Engineering from University of Electro-Communications, Tokyo, where he subsequently spent several years as a visiting lecturer.
Sri Lanka’s economic growth was over eight per cent in the last quarter and the government seeks to achieve double-digit growth percentages s. Sri Lanka’s government considers ICT to be a key development tool and the expansion of broadband usage is among its highest priorities. Given the costs, wireless broadband is the most reasonable way to expand the access network; the backbone, though, will be fibre. Local content in local languages will be the main driver of consumer adoption.
There is no doubt in the minds of any Sri Lankan that their motherland is on her way to a very rapid socio-economic development in the post conflict era. Government statistics show that its economic growth was over eight per cent in the last quarter and optimistic growth plans seek to achieve double-digit growth percentages in the near future. Sri Lanka’s government has identified ICT as a key development tool and already named 2009 as the year of IT and English. It is almost impossible to distinguish ICT from telecommunications, particularly from broadband Internet infrastructure. Sri Lanka has a telephone penetration over 85 per cent, of which almost 70 per cent is due to mobile phone penetration and the remaining 15 per cent due to wired and wireless fixed lines. Even though Sri Lanka can boast of its high telephone penetration, it is not proud of its less than two per cent penetration of broadband. Also the ARPU of telecommunication operators are in the range of US$2 to US$3- similar to most developing world countries. Broadband expansion is important, not only for Sri Lanka, but for all developing nations, but there are a number of basic requirements to be met and barriers to overcome and a variety of strategies that can increase the penetration of broadband connectivity. Broadband access can be either wired or wireless. Since FTTX (fibre to whatever) is not an affordable option for most operators, or the residential users and the small and medium enterprises (SME) of most developing nations, they are compelled to depend on DSL technologies in areas where copper access infrastructure is in place. The attractive, affordable, broadband solutions in most other areas are wireless mobile broadband technologies such as WiMAX, HSPA, WiFi and perhaps, in time, Long Term Evolution (LTE). Apart from affordability most users today need mobility too. Most developing nations have neither high-speed trains that travel over 200kmph nor many highways, so broadband connectivity that works on high speed vehicles is not yet essential. Nevertheless, they do need broadband wherever they go so wireless broadband is greatly appreciated, but there are a variety of barriers to increasing broadband penetration: • Lack of useful local applications/content – Users need to know what benefits a broadband connection would bring. Browsing the Internet is not a good enough answer. Access to games, movies, music etc. or even social networks like Facebook is not attractive to much of the rural population in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, people living in rural areas have to travel to the capital or to a few selected cities to apply for a passport or to renew it, to register a vehicle, get a driving license or renew it, get advanced medical care, or to find educational institutions and the like. This travel for basic services is costly and time consuming. The late Dr. Arthur C Clarke said, “Communicate, don’t commute”. If we could provide quality eGovernment, eBanking, eMedicine, eLearning, remote offices and such, many people would want them and hence the broadband services to access them. People might pay up to US$20-30 per month for a good broadband connection, even though the current ARPU for voice service is merely US$2-3. The Government of Sri Lanka is creating a variety of eGovernment services; it is computerizing most of its current services to provide them on line. Government employees are being trained to work in the computerized, eGovernment, environment as well. There is still much to do and the government needs private sector partners to move ahead with many of the eServices mentioned above. To reach the entire population, these new applications and the content must be in local languages. Although we have very high literacy rates, less than 25 per cent of Sri Lankans can work in English. We need to provide incentives to local content developers – local language content is the key to increasing broadband penetration. • Lack of PC penetration and computer literacy – Computer penetration and computer literacy are very low Sri Lanka. To improve the computer literacy, the government inaugurated rural wisdom centres, called NANASELA. There already are 600 such outlets and the target is to reach 1000 within this year. Apart from these, computer centres being started in over one third of the government’s schools and there are plans to expand this programme further – this is one of the areas where the government is encouraging the participation of private sector partners. Since most network operators maintain outlets and agencies in remote places, we believe they can extend those outlets as Internet cafes and booths where the people can come and use broadband connections to access eServices. This would be the short to medium term solution until PCs become affordable to most households and people become more knowledgeable regarding computers and their usage. The government can create incentives stimulate the local assembly of low cost computers for rural masses. Television might also serve as broadband customer premises equipment. Almost all households have televisions and there are plans in Sri Lanka to launch DVB in the near future. • Lack of affordability (low ARPU) – As mentioned, local ARPU – mainly from voice services – is very low, in the range of US$2-3. Voice is an essential service, but when no one is willing to pay for it, the way forward is to bundle it with broadband services. When sufficient locally useful content and applications – in local languages – are available via broadband, operators can generate significantly higher ARPU, given the usefulness to the customers. The service convergence next generation networks will bring can push ARPU even higher. Mobile broadband will have a critical role building broadband penetration, especially in the developing world; • International Bandwidth is Expensive – International bandwidth requirements have gone up and the costs have come down slightly over the last few years, but nowhere near the required amounts. It is now time that the network providers with direct access to international bandwidth work to increase this bandwidth and reduce the cost. Enterprise users need to commit to buying more bandwidth so that the operators can purchase large amounts of bandwidth and obtain significant quantity discounts. If that happens, the megabit per second costs would come down for all. This is a ‘must’ – today most of our broadband connections provide unacceptably low speeds; and • Solid, inexpensive /affordable backbone infrastructure – Even though mobile broadband access – WiMAX, HSPA and LTE in the future – will be the most popular broadband access method, there is no doubt that the backbone network of any next generation network should be optical fibre. Different operators have their own optical backbones in different parts of the country, depending on their needs. In Sri Lanka we have decided upon a national optical fibre backbone network that can be shared by all operators. We also expect to share the fibre laying process with other utilities such as electricity and railway that already have underground ducts in many parts of the country. Once the national optical backbone is ready, the cost of broadband connectivity (both wireless and wired) should come down and the QoS (quality of service) improve. Sri Lanka now has a per capita income of about US$2,100, but the government’s goal is to double this to US$4,000 by 2016. ICT will play a key role meeting Sri Lanka’s economic development goals for the foreseeable future. Broadband connectivity, a basic ICT tool, is fundamental to eLearning, eMedicine, eGovernment, as well as to many economic goals and the quality of life in every country. Building an appropriate broadband infrastructure will help foster exponential economic growth in Sri Lanka.