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Google Loon: Test tube for Sri Lanka but promises massive dividends if successful

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ICT Agency CEO Muhunthan Canagey (second from left) exchanging the MOU with Google Vice President Mike Cassidy. Others from left are Highways and Investment Promotion Deputy Minister Eran Wickramaratne, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene, Foreign Affairs and Telecom Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Economic Affairs Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva – Pic by Upul Abayasekara

‘Dancing with the devil of universal internet access’

It was reported that Sri Lanka has signed a memorandum of understanding with Google of USA to cover the entire island with internet connectivity via Google’s latest technology breakthrough, ‘Google Loon’. Sri Lanka is the first country to do so in the world. Hence, it is a ‘test tube’ for Sri Lanka carrying chances of success as well as failure. Highlighting more on the failure side, one writer, Anuj Srivas, writing to The Wire has called it ‘Sri Lanka’s dance with the devil of universal internet access’ (available at: http://thewire.in/2015/08/13/sri-lankas-dance-with-the-devil-of-universal-internet-access-8414/ ). 



Fear of the ‘big’

His arguments are basically based on the typical objections which writers of developing countries have against ‘everything big’ – Big oil, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and so on. When a poor small country deals with the big, it is natural to harbour fear that the big thing would eventually swallow it up. Hence, the writer in question correctly warns that, given the asymmetry in knowledge and bargaining capacity, the local politicians or policy makers are not yet equipped to deal with the big on an equal partner basis. 

These warnings are salutary because they help the policy makers to look at every aspect of the deal and cover all the holes with appropriate proactive measures. Given today’s easy access to knowledge, no country should be a sitting duck to impending risks unless it chooses to be blind to the obvious. Small Singapore has proved that it can deal with any giant in the world on an equal footing because of the superb knowledge base it possesses.

The digital divide is crucial in the globe

Google Loon is the outcome of a project embarked by Google to eliminate what is known as a bigger problem in today’s global development. That is the ‘Digital Divide’ between the rich and the poor countries and, even within a country, between the rich people and the poor people. According to the statistics of the International Telecommunication Union, in 1998, 17 out of 100 in rich countries were internet users. The number for the poor countries was just 2. The gap has widened over the years demonstrating a clear digital divide. Accordingly, by 2014, 78 people out of 100 in rich countries were enjoying internet facilities. That luxury had been available only to 32 people out of 100 in poor countries. 



Sri Lanka’s digital divide is pathetic

In the case of Sri Lanka, the picture is pathetic, to say the least. As reported by the Department of Census and Statistics in its Annual Computer Literacy Statistics – 2014, only 10.5% of the people in the age group 5-69 had used internet facilities in 2014. When taken as a percentage of the whole population in that year, it was just 9.1%, pretty much lower than the average of the poor countries which stands at 32%. Of the country’s population in that year, only 7.1% had used email to communicate with others. Untitled-2

The Census Department has not tabulated these numbers by the income distribution of Sri Lanka making it difficult to gauge the digital divide among income groups. But the statistics show that there is a wide digital divide between the urban sector on one side and the combined rural and estate sector on the other. Similarly, there is a wide digital divide among different age groups. Almost all the internet and email users in the country had been between the ages of 15 to 40. Thus, internet and email communications are not inclusive in Sri Lanka. They are the domain of an exclusive club. A country desirous of delivering development to its citizens should break this exclusive digital empire and make it inclusive.



Development today is acquisition of knowledge

Development today is defined in a wider sense – ability of a person to attain ‘self-perfection’. Many countries today seek to attain development by increasing the average income of people in material form, also known as per capita income or PCI. But an increase in mere PCI is not sufficient for a society to help its members to attain the goal of self-perfection though it may fulfill one of the ground conditions necessary for that. One of the important ingredients for attaining self-perfection is the ability of a person to acquire information – commonly called knowledge – fast and from a variety of sources and use that knowledge for his self-development. 

But the depth of the knowledge acquired by people and where they have stored that knowledge have undergone a tremendous transformation over the years. 



Today’s extra-somatic knowledge is in the cyberspace

Accordingly, before the scripts were developed, the almost entirety of knowledge was within the body of a person called ‘somatic knowledge’. But when the scripts were developed and that knowledge was presented in book form, part of that knowledge was stored outside the body called ‘extra-somatic knowledge’. The proportion of this extra-somatic knowledge in the total knowledge of a person became immensely large – as large as about 80% of the total knowledge – when books became a common feature and libraries a general necessity of modern civilisations. 

When the world moved to the digital age, the knowledge which had been stored in books earlier was converted to invisible form present everywhere in the cyberspace. If someone wants to draw on this knowledge, it is just a matter of getting linked to the cyberspace through a suitable medium. Internet today provides this medium. Hence, to break the digital divide and make development inclusive, this medium should be made available to people freely.



Internet is a necessity and not a luxury

Thus, the availability of internet as an inclusive development measure is a necessity today rather than a luxury. Accordingly, governments of rich countries and fast growing emerging nations have taken proactive action to facilitate the process by investing in the digital infrastructure of the countries concerned. 

A good example is the super information highway introduced to Malaysia by its visionary Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad in mid 1990s. The objective was to digitally cover the whole nation so that future would be delivered to Malaysians today. Thus, the conversion of a country to a digital world is essential for it to attain sustainable development.


Libraries and high capacity low cost servers

Though becoming a digital country is important, there are several prerequisites for this development to take place in society. First, knowledge that is presented in books in hardcopy form should be converted to digital form. Almost all libraries of universities in the developed world have gone through this transformation in the last few decades and become what is known today as eLibraries. 

In an eLibrary, all the books are stored in a central place called a server making the facility available to readers throughout the globe. These servers have now become smaller in size while their capacity has become larger with the advancements in information and communication technology or ICT. 

An often quoted example is the capacity of iPhone 5S in comparison to the computer that guided the Apollo Mission to the moon in 1967. The Apollo Mission guidance computer was with a processor speed of 1MHz and a memory capacity of just 4KB. In contrast, iPhone 5S today is with a processor speed of 1.3 GHz and a memory of 64 GB. Hence, modern societies can store a large volume of information in small but powerful servers. They have become less expensive too. 



The need for giving a fair deal to internet customers

A person desirous of acquiring the knowledge stored in an eLibrary should get linked to it through the internet. This is why internet penetration becomes a crucial issue to a society’s development. Internet not only should be wide-spread but also reliable and fast. It also should give a fair deal to internet users. Though there are six internet providers in Sri Lanka at present, most of them are unreliable with respect to the service they provide or to honouring the agreement they have signed with customers. 

A glaring example is the Wi-Fi facility provided by one mobile service provider. He has offered a 4G package to customers at a fixed price promising to allow him to go up to 25 GB. The presumption is that the customer can use up to 25 GB per month as is provided by SLT to its customers. However, in this particular case, once the customer has cumulatively reached the 25 GB level, the service provider has slowed the internet speed without notice and is used to sending SMSs asking him to buy more GB by paying more. As long as these issues remain unresolved, a mere coverage of internet islandwide does not help internet users.



When the world moves to 5G, even 4G will be primitive

Internet service in most countries today has reached its 4th Generation Long Term Evolution known as 4G LTE. The speed in 4G is significantly higher than the previous level namely, 3G, running up to 20 to 30 MB per second. Sri Lanka has so far not covered the entire island with 4G and even in many Colombo suburbs, it is still 3G that is available. Without speed, internet is just like a private bus in Sri Lanka that moves at a snail speed angering the passengers inside as well as motorists following behind. 

The world is now moving toward the exceptionally reliable 5th Generation or 5G by 2020 where speed is as high as 7.5 – 10 GB per second. With that speed, even an immensely large document or 20 movies can be downloaded or uploaded in a fraction of a second. It is therefore inevitable that Sri Lanka’s internet users who are presently dissatisfied with the current speed levels will soon demand fast speed internet services at least at 4G level in the present circumstances and later at 5G level once it has become a common service throughout the globe. Sri Lanka’s policy planners should keep these issues in mind when they plan the ongoing inclusive internet project in Sri Lanka with Google’s support.



Google Loon is to take care of the other 5 billion of people in the globe

In this scenario, the Big Google is providing a yeoman service to the global community by introducing its Google Loon project. Its objective is to make available the benefit of internet services to the other five billion people in the globe who do not have internet access at present. Loon has come from the shortened version of the word Balloon because internet services under the project are to be provided by releasing balloons carrying the needed instruments to the atmosphere. 

These balloons floating at an altitude of about 32 km will function as a transmission tower in the case of modern mobile phone service providers. They receive data from earth from the area covered by them, usually about 5000 square kilometres, and transmit the same back to the earth. Since these balloons are located pretty much above the altitude at which commercial flights fly, they do not obstruct any other operation. Information could be received on earth through a disc antenna or through a mobile or fixed device that has the capacity with an inbuilt modem to receive information. 

If it is a mobile device, when it moves from the transmission range of one balloon, it is immediately connected to the next balloon available within the range, quite similar to the way one mobile phone transmission tower would deliver a mobile phone user to the next transmission tower. These balloons are therefore pretty much less-costly than the satellites that are shot to the atmospheric orbit for the same purpose. Thus, with low cost, balloons placed in the atmosphere are the ideal instrument for providing an inclusive internet service to the world community.


The guinea pig need not pay the initial costs

In this sense, the measure taken by the Sri Lanka government to give internet facilities to all citizens is a proactive one. Yet, there are several grey areas which have to be cleared. A balloon flown to atmosphere has a life span of only about 100 days and has to be replaced continuously. Therefore, it involves a tremendous initial capital cost and subsequent operational costs to make the facility available to users without interruptions. 

Since this has not been tested elsewhere, it is still a learning experience even for its creator, Google. It will therefore use the experiment in Sri Lanka to collect the vital data to plan its future operations in other countries. Thus, Sri Lanka, though a beneficiary, is also a guinea pig of the initial testing period. Hence, it is of utmost importance for Sri Lankan policy makers to negotiate with Google to get it to bear the installation as well as the operational costs in the initial period. 



Need for reaching agreement with the current service providers

Google Loon provides only cheaper transmission facilities and not servers. Internet service has still to be provided by the present service providers in the country. However, Google Loon will make it unnecessary for them to erect their own transmission towers when they are to extend their service to unserviced areas. Thus, internet will not be free under Google Loon as many have perceived. 

Since the present service providers have already invested in transmission towers or broadband service provisions, they cannot all of a sudden dismantle the infrastructure they have built in competition with each other. It may also not be advisable to do so since Google Loon is still in testing stage and the final outcome is not yet precisely known. Thus, the policy makers will have to negotiate with the current service providers and reach agreement with them to follow a common national policy relating to the provision of internet services to people who have no access to it so far. As for the costs, probably there is a minor cost saving for the present service providers and it may be advisable to get their agreement to pass that saving onto their customers.



To make internet universal, make the devices also universal

A third issue is the provision of a less costly device universally to enable people to log into the internet. The present smart mobile phones sold by popular brand names are beyond the buying capacity of ordinary people. Hence, a suitable phablet or tablet with the required capacity has to be made available to people along with the introduction of the inclusive internet service to them. This is important because according to the Annual Computer Literacy Statistics-2014 of the Department of Census and Statistics, only about 20% of the households in Sri Lanka had owned a computer or a laptop capable of logging into the internet in 2014. Hence, there is a long way for Sri Lanka to go if it is to provide universal internet coverage to its citizens. 

In today’s context, the provision of universal internet coverage is similar to the establishment of a wide-spread school system in Sri Lanka in 1940s. But it has to be planned properly for the country to receive the maximum benefit out of the new measure.

(W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, could be reached at waw1949@gmail.com.)

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