From left: FITIS CEO Aruna Alwis, Huawei Technologies Lanka Co Vice President, Enterprise Business Group Indika De Zoysa, Mobitel Acting CEO Chandika Vitharana, SLT CEO Kiththi Perera, Dialog Axiata GCTO Pradeep De Almeida, Hutch CEO Thirukumar Nadarasa and Lanka Bell MD Dr. Prasad Samarasinghe. FITIS Chairman Abbas Kamrudeen, Dialog Axiata GCEO Supun Weerasinghe and Airtel Sri Lanka CEO Ashish Chandra attended virtually and are not in the picture
- Sri Lanka has done well in infrastructure and affordability; more to mature in content and improving consumer readiness, say telcos
- With potential of becoming regional technology hub, Govt.’s 5-year development plan envisions ‘Technology-based society and digitally inclusive Sri Lanka’ and ‘Technology-based entrepreneurial economy’
- ‘Gamata Sanniwedanaya’ progresses better than anticipated thanks to leadership of TRCSL DG and his team, say telcos
- 100% 4G and fibre connectivity to rural communities may have been commercially unviable without intervention and support of Government
The Federation of the ICT Industry Sri Lanka (FITIS), the apex body of the ICT industry, brought together all telco leaders in Sri Lanka to one common platform recently, hosting its virtual conclave. The salient points of the discussion, which revolved around the essences of a contactless economy, broadening connectivity, and keeping up with the growing digital demands in the new normal, are given below.
Joining in the discussion were Airtel Sri Lanka Chief Executive Officer Ashish Chandra, Dialog Axiata Group CEO Supun Weerasinghe, Dialog Axiata Group Chief Technology Officer Pradeep De Almeida, Hutch Chief Executive Officer Thirukumar Nadarasa, Lanka Bell Managing Director Dr. Prasad Samarasinghe, Mobitel Acting CEO Chandika Vitharana and SLT CEO Kiththi Perera, whilst Huawei Technologies Lanka Co Vice President, Enterprise Business Group Indika De Zoysa moderated the session. FITIS Chairman Abbas Kamrudeen welcomed the members and participants and FITIS Chief Executive Officer Aruna Alwis attended the occasion.
As we collaborate virtually to pull through these deceiving times, addressing the digital divide and ensuring a digitally-connected, inclusive society is vested upon three key stakeholders: The Government, the regulator and the telco industry.
Drive towards a digitally-inclusive Sri Lanka
Connectivity and digital platforms as a larger enabler for the ICT industry, even before the pandemic, it contributed to about 2% improvement in GDP growth with the 10% contribution of increasing broadband penetration.
In terms of the 'Digital Connectivity Index' today Sri Lanka ranks at 55.6 out of a ranking of 60. Where we have done well in infrastructure and affordability, Sri Lanka has more homework in the areas of content and improving consumer readiness.
Connectivity is the foundation to be able to provide any form of services in the space of hosting, applications, OTT, or in terms of the digital stack. Connectivity while we travel, in office, any public location, or at our residences are a basic lifestyle for many of us within the urban limits.
With the potential of becoming a regional technology hub not only for South-East Asia but also for Asia, today we are a nation aspiring to a thriving digital economy. The launch of the Government’s five-year development plan under a vision for a 'Technology-based society and digitally inclusive Sri Lanka' and a 'Technology-based Entrepreneurial Economy' commenced in 2020 – A timely important strategic move to help gear the nation as they are inevitably pushed to an accelerating digital environment for a world beyond the ‘Now Normal’.
Measures for digital acceleration
The key challenge faced by every telco service provider globally is that the demand patterns for connectivity shifted overnight from corporate zones to residential areas – Interrogating the already heavily invested infrastructure to be able to withstand the shift of consumption volumes. WFH and post effect of slow down economies both caused a lot of reverse migration of citizens world-over and with them shifted a significant amount of consumption of their voice and data.
Previous to the ‘New Normal,’ consumers used more downloading data which today has shifted for a two-way communication requiring an equal upload and download of data. This questions the quality of services each telco is capable of providing within its capacities.
Speaking on the directions over the new normal, infrastructure is crucial for consumer lives, enterprises and Government operations. The pandemic has highlighted the need to accelerate deployment of the infrastructure as well as the adoption of these platforms by the consumer to enterprise and the Government.
The pandemic has created an impetus to accelerate the speed of innovation and adoption to meet the trending consumer demands including eLearning and virtual business meeting platforms. Yet, users including the education providers have not advanced most of the content to meet the digital era. There is a lot more to catch up on in terms of adopting best practices to the education system in Sri Lanka and virtual meeting platforms are only one solution.
With the accelerating demand on data bandwidth, investing in more towers to increase the CAPEX is not perceived as a viable solution, so the interest today has shifted to look at increasing the layers of technology.
The TRC’s initiative to release more spectrum is perceived to support the industry meet its consumer demands. The 26,000 spectra to be allocated amongst the telcos will provide better data capacities on already laid infrastructure. This will help replace less efficient spectrum such as 2G, 3G with more efficient 4G and 5G to improve efficacy and better experience to the consumer base.
Telcos must also look at re-calibrating the networks by studying the shifted consumer demand patterns. Investments in the applications, modernising the network by replacing the legacy systems. Also, the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to conduct smart cashing solutions can help manage the consumption cleansing. Sharing of infrastructure has been in good practice by all operators and been mandated also by the ‘Gamata Sanniwedanaya’ program.
Progress of TRCSL’s ‘Gamata Sanniwedanaya’
Telcos continue to work with the Sri Lanka Government under the ‘Gamata Sanniwedanaya' initiative to expand coverage to rural consumers, which a crucial step towards ensuring an inclusive SMART society, addressing the denial of vital services such as education, healthcare, banking, and finance to Government services especially in the circumstances of the new normal.
Not only the basic infrastructure layer, the transmission connectivity layer, cloud infrastructure layer to meet the need of enterprises to be able to access data seamlessly through the cloud platforms – all of this adds to cost. Yet, Sri Lanka ranks number eight in terms of the most affordable broadband services in the world showcasing the commitment of all operators in the country to improve on the aspect of 'affordability'.
The Government set aside Rs. 15 b to achieve a milestone of 100% coverage in terms of 4G and fibre connectivity, with an already commenced journey in Ratnapura District, to address the rural and urban connectivity divide – ensuring continued education to all children, seamless connectivity within government services to empower the people, enterprises, and society. The budget allocation will help the industry to specially meet the demand of rural areas which otherwise would have become unviable due to commercial reasons.
The project has helped telcos to step away from the old day's practice of exhaustive conversations with landlords and site owners to communities explaining its deeds and for the first time in history act upon a national interest within a unified vision where each stokehold today is entrusted to play each of its roles. This includes other Government and non-Government stakeholders pooled in ensuring the 'Gamata Sanniwedanaya’ initiative meets its objectives. The initiative has improved cost and service efficiencies of the whole industry and has made impressive progress than projected thanks to the connective efforts and the proactive leadership and team at TRCSL.
The initiative to increase the connectivity to the rural areas of Sri Lanka even though may not be commercially viable, yet the support by all four service providers to rally around the initiative to extend support to the Government's vision shows each of its commitment towards our nation – our people. The idea of a school child be able to connect to international platforms to source knowledge is a step towards national transformation likewise the ability for an isolated household to be able to get connected to an international gateway for creating income opportunities is a passport to entrepreneurship and economic revival.
- The Government's initiative to establish the digital layer sets the foundation for a technology-based society, yet BFISs, enterprises and Government must work with telcos in tandem to establish a ‘Technology-based entrepreneurial economy’.
- A call to the education providers to modernize content to suit a digital learning environment.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled demand for technologies to help establish best health practices in organisations and within societies.
- Life to right 'applications' to ensure a digitally connected Society is vital.
- 5G – A total paradigm shift focusing on Industry 4.0 will soon come to Sri Lanka: Lankan entrepreneurs must attune to utilising its true benefits.
Creating a technology-based society
The current market condition is yet to shift in favour of a contactless economy. The uptake of the concept of ‘mobile money’ hasn’t been in its favour in comparison to many other countries despite the ability of the telcos to collectively cater to the full market demand as Sri Lanka for decades has been a heavily banked nation.
The ability to make payments online through peer to peer transfers, on-net, no-net banking, or digital wallet is yet critical challenges for the Lanka economy. There should be the opportunity to transact through the mobile wallet, for which money must get deposited to the mobile wallet. The way forward would be to shift the market from a heavily banked economy to a cashless economy for which the 26 licensed bank and financial institutions, telcos, the enterprises and the Government must work in tandem.
In terms of market facilitation, telcos must now focus on helping consumers to be able to embrace technologies and means of doing business e.g. adopting chatbots and video conferencing with Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) for which telcos could use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) technologies to pre-amp the consumer concerns to deliver solution before them reaching out to the telcos. Sri Lanka is well progressing to meeting all these demands as it all portrays.
Life to right 'applications' to ensure a digitally connected society is the real take-home to all stakeholders. The Government has made progress in establishing the core foundation in this endeavour by well progressing on establishing the digital ID layer, which is to help validate the individuals' identity.
Initiatives in extending telco platforms to applications such as ‘Govi Mithuru’ to support the farming community with information including what to farm, pricings, agri-tech guidance services, and Guru.lk for the Education layer, to provide online education. Extended services for Government learning platforms including for State universities as well as the ‘e-thaksalawa’ for school children are amongst many initiatives.
Addressing the health layer telcos have partnered with both Government and private sectors to be able to support the dissemination of health services and pharmaceuticals. Also, where other local microservices are concerned, the key element of creating an application creation environment (API layer) the ‘Idea Mart’ was launched to help create value added services.
Addressing the shifting dynamics
Sri Lanka was able to be at the forefront of launching new technologies like 3G, 4G and has over the past years taken proactive approaches towards the development of the Telco industry in the country. With four major telecom operators backed by major international companies serving the needs of our people which includes three already established and one all-ready to launch 4G operators serving the country. The TRC in Sri Lanka from the very beginning has been proactive in facilitating the advancement of the industry and its infrastructures.
5G is a total paradigm shift that focuses predominantly on Industry 4.0 as one of its key pillars. It works around three key technologies, EMB (Enhanced Mobile Broadband) speaks about 10 times faster data speeds enabling emerging technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Massive Machine Type Communication (MMTC) have very low power sensors to help data collection on the field such as environmental conditions. Finally, Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) where tasks that require low latency but high reliability such as surgeries. 5G will help to produce the cost per GB at a lower price.
Telcos will continue to focus on bringing down the cost of production so that affordable services can be offered to the customer as the consumption of data continues to excel faster. It was noted the average consumption of 4GB per user before the pandemic today stands at above 7GB with a trend of further increasing as consumers embrace a digitally connected world.
Today, with the focus on IoT, sensors are quite affordable and readily available. COVID-19 pandemic is propelling demand for touchless interfaces accelerating the shift towards sensory interfaces. Moreover, due to the lack of competition within the space, Lankan innovators can still make use of 4G networks to develop products and services with winning solutions to meet the market and enterprise requirements. But as the demand and competition increase it is up to the telco operators to gradually shift their base to 5G.
Addressing secure connectivity
On the flip side, cyber criminals’ interest got escalated exponentially since the pandemic escalated to a state of an epidemic worldwide. Security measures to support business continuity and resiliency in paramount. Understanding the status of cybersecurity aspects and adaptation of standards as a telco service provider is as critical to its consumer base as ever before as we navigate through the pandemic adopting new working practices and technologies.
Cybersecurity as well as basic access control plays a vital role to safeguard consumers and their businesses from cybercriminals, for which telco service providers follow ISO/IEC 27001:2013 which specifies the requirements for establishing, implementing, maintaining, and continually improving an information security management system within the context of the organisation including focus physical access controls of facilities.
Some telcos also following the Minimum-Security Baseline Standard (MSBs) which ensures frequent security updates to software. Some also follow the most stringent standard designed with over 110 diverse criteria around verticals of Identify, Detect, Respond and Recover which address critical areas such as database encryptions to asset management to segregation of the network.
Overall, telcos withstood a sharp increase in home working and entertainment demands and are working with the Government to be able to revive the schooling system to meet today’s demands arising from the pandemic. The imperative for telcos is to be bolder in their approach to digital transformation and innovation. They will continue to work in more agile conditions to realise transformation gains for business and the nation.
The directives of the regulator will help Sri Lanka leapfrog towards a 'Technology-based society and digitally inclusive Sri Lanka' and a 'Technology-based Entrepreneurial Economy' as the choice of emerging technologies and processes continues to widen. As well, we must mature in content and improving consumer readiness to reap the best of what technology could offer for the benefit of a better livelihood to every Sri Lankan.