By Hiyal Biyagamage
Sri Lanka recently celebrated its 20th anniversary of obtaining a dedicated connection to the internet. To mark the historic milestone, the Internet Society Sri Lanka Chapter organised an event titled ‘20 Years of Internet in Sri Lanka’ to look back at the achievements which established the internet as a decisive technological factor over the last two decades in the country and to honour the pioneers who made internet a reality in Sri Lanka.
Even though the presence of the internet was genuinely embraced in 1995, Sri Lanka as a country mooted the idea of connecting computers together to form networks in the mid-1980s and brought forward ICT policies to the fore as one of the few countries in Asia. By the end of 1989, Sri Lanka experienced its first e-mail connection which used a dial-up modem.
A hard-earned achievement
Reminiscing about the era from 1984 to 1995, Prof. Abhaya Induruwa, widely known as the father of internet in Sri Lanka, spoke about how ICT policies sustained back in the ’80s, birth of LEARN (Lanka Experimental Academic and Research Network) and how Sri Lanka got connected to the world via the internet.
“When we take the time period between the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ingredients we were looking for to embrace many technological novelties which were happening around the world were policy support and funding support. Under the Chairmanship of Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, CINTEC (Council for Information Technology, which was the initial policy making body for IT in Sri Lanka) started populating policies in 1984 which included the early introduction of ideas and how data communication should foster itself in the country. Around the same time, the committee appointed by the Vice Chancellor of University of Moratuwa recommended that data communication should be the deciding factor when it comes to requirements of IT and internet within the university as well as in Sri Lanka,” he said.
Prof. Induruwa said that it was CINTEC which gave the first donation of Rs. 12,500 which helped the engineers to buy the first high-speed modem to connect Sri Lanka to the United States. This followed by a donation of Rs. 3 million from the University Grants Commission in 1993 to deploy LEARN. Parallel to this, a non-profit organisation called LAcNet (Lanka Academic Network) which was set up in USA was funding the transfer of emails from Sri Lanka to USA using a dial-up connection.
From a radio shack to LEARN
“In the 1985/1986 period with the use of an old TRS 80 model which ran Xenix, we were able to demonstrate a remote login from University of Moratuwa (UoM) which connected a computer in University of Colombo for the very first time. In 1987, the Arthur C. Clarke Centre tried to introduce a kind of proprietary model called Mallard Mail Box. Sir Arthur was a great proponent of this technology, but unfortunately it did not succeed at that time. Around 1989, we saw the real beginning of an era of multi-user computing in Sri Lanka which was instigated by UoM. We were very fortunate to receive a grant of Yen 400 million from the Japanese Government and we were able to procure 50 286 computers (IBM XT 286) which had Windows 3.11 installed.”
He mentioned his proposal to the Sri Lankan Government about implementing LEARN. The idea was to set up a country-wide network for academic and research networking. However, setting up LEARN using X.25 technology in 1989 was a daunting task and his efforts to secure some funds from the University Grants Commission (UGC) were in vain.
“In June 1990, we established LEARNMail. It was Sri Lanka’s first IP-based email system and offered internet email service to the Sri Lankan academic and research community. We were dialling roughly about three times a week (using a dial-up connection) when it started but within a few months, we were connecting three times a day to send mails and download content.
“In 1992, we were finally able to get Rs. 3 million from UGC and using that money, we were able to set up the first IP WAN (Wide Area Network) in Sri Lanka in 1994/1995. Using three 64 Kbps wireless links and associated networking devices, we connected both University of Colombo and the Open University of Sri Lanka to UoM. In 1995, Sri Lanka Telecom decided to expedite the connectivity of Sri Lanka internet services, making it the very first ISP (Internet Service Provider) of the country and LEARN was also permanently connected to the internet. It was a moment of truth and history for Sri Lanka when finally we connected to the world,” said Prof. Induruwa.
Internet – the pivotal element in the information age
Addressing the gathering, ICT Agency Sri Lanka Chairperson Chitranganie Mubarak said that the internet was the pivotal technology of the information age. “It drives the hottest stocks in the Wall Street and shakes many technological innovations presently,” she said.
It is reported that during the last year, all three billion of the world’s internet users sent 200 million emails, uploaded 72 hours of YouTube videos, undertook four million Google searches, spent $ 30,000 on Amazon, just spending a single minute every day. However, Mubarak said that a portion of people believes that the internet has only aggravated existing cultural, social and economic inequalities.
“They feel that the internet has ended up giving extraordinary power and wealth to a few. When you take an entity like Google, which controls more than 90% of the internet business in most of the countries, and is valued at $ 400 billion whereas General Motors which employs more people than Google does is valued at $ 50 billion, just imagine the wealth generated by the internet for people like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Ma of Alibaba? Whatever these giants have achieved, what has it meant for us? What has internet meant for governments, commerce and society?” she opined.
According to Mubarak, ICT has become an integral component of the international development agenda and because of this very reason, millions of dollars are being invested each year on technological innovation.
“A large number of applications and devices are being produced with the expectation that it could lift development initiatives of governments, NGOs or other funding organisations. The situation has been the same in Sri Lanka. With the launch of the e-Sri Lanka initiative; the hype has increased to use ICT as a tool to enable the social economic development in the country. The large number of projects implemented across the country has devised to empower communities and to bring a range of products and services to their doorsteps. We have seen a high degree of innovation in these projects and they were implemented by people of different capacities and capabilities under hugely differing circumstances in different environments. These projects also vary from complex to very simple.”
Due to several reasons, some of the potential local projects were not properly rolled out by previous authorities, she mentioned.
“Unfortunately, a great majority of these projects could not be sustained or were not adopted by relevant institutions who could have sustained them. Where do we go from here? From a standpoint of a society that boasts of around 40% IT literacy, it is important to address these questions to negotiate our next move. The recently-released Network Readiness Index (NRI) was very promising. Sri Lanka has been able to jump 11 places, ranking 65th among 143 economies. Now we are in the top half of the NRI, significantly ahead of our neighbours. Yet, activities performed by the average citizen and businesses over the internet are still limited in Sri Lanka. Social engagement via the internet of course is very much on the rise, particularly among the youth, but citizens and businesses are yet to make noteworthy gains from digitisation of public services,” said Mubarak.
She also said: “There are some services which had the start but couldn’t deliver the results. One of those would be the electronic national identity card. If this project gets off the shelf when the right time comes, it would transform the way citizens interact with the Government. We are really looking forward to having that project up and running very soon. I should also mention the range of citizen-centric e-government services offered to all Sri Lankans. There have been massive improvements in these but they are not visible to the public.”
Next generation of internet
Speaking on moving to the next generation of internet, Mubarak said that several key issues like connectivity, quality broadband and broadband prices should be resolved soon. She emphasised that the ICT sector of the country should make a persistent effort to facilitate adoption of new technologies rather than adapting to new technologies. Mubarak also gave few insights into couple of initiatives that ICTA is looking forward to implement within the next two to three years, including bringing big data aspect into e-government services.
“What should be our priorities and on what aspects should we focus if we are to move into the next generation internet? Connectivity is a main issue. Access to broadband-enabled services is a key condition for competitiveness. Quality broadband at an affordable price should be our goal. Although Sri Lanka boasts affordable rates, it is just a small portion of internet access. Analysts state that each time a country doubles its broadband speed, economic output increases by 0.3%. It could be to a wider use of internet by citizens from online content consumption to online shopping.
“Another very important requirement would be the setting up of an online payment mechanism that lends itself to use by citizens and businesses across the country; not just a few citizens and businesses, but everyone. It is obvious that we need to shift to the mobile. The whole country is moving towards mobile devices and mobile broadband. A mobile service delivery platform for the Government is definitely on the cards.
“Another important point to ponder is that the Government and all the institutions in the ICT sector should make a strenuous effort to facilitate adoption of new technologies rather than adapting to new technologies by society. We need to move fast or else, we’ll be playing catch-up forever or worse. Big data would be the next big move for us. By September, we envisaged that the relevant platforms and infrastructure would be placed properly to allow analysis of huge data streams from Government which is undoubtedly needed for the development of more citizen-friendly public services,” said Mubarak.
Internet is weak in Asia
Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, founding Chair of LIRNEasia, also addressed the gathering. Mentioning that a chain is as strong as its weakest link, Prof. Samarajiva said that internet is a weak link in the Asian region.
“What we have found through our research at LIRNEasia is that today, the real problem is the internet’s international connectivity. If you can have some kind of Sri Lankan internet, where all the websites that you want to reach are within a special sphere, I think we’ll be able to do a decent job with our networks. But today with the problems of performance, the whole region has become a poor-performing internet hub with its poor international connectivity. When you run downloads using a local server, we get relatively good performance but when we use an international server, we get degraded performance,” he said.
Comparing Sri Lanka’s internet usage, he said, “According to the ITU, we have about one in five Sri Lankans connected as internet users (internet users/100 equals 21.9). According to my research, we should have a bit more (internet users/100 equals 34.8) but still this is not enough for a middle-income country like Sri Lanka.”
He also discussed the region’s latency issues. “Latency is critically important for what we do using the internet. To resolve a URL sometimes, you need latency. The desirable latency from a regulatory perspective is 300ms and none of mobile networks in the region meet this target. Like most other ISPs in region, Sri Lanka ISPs perform poorly on latency,” he said.
He mentioned that Sri Lanka has made progress from the ‘bad old days’ where people fought over for a speed of 64kpbs. He also pointed out that from a capacity-wise, purchase rules were increasingly relaxed from SEAME-WE 2 to SEAME-WE 4 and Sri Lankan Government compelling Sri Lanka Telecom in 2004 to permit Tata (then VSNL) to use SEA-ME-WE 3, which set the foundation country’s BPO/BPM sector. “BPO providers were not willing to come here and be captive to one single provider. They wanted a choice of providers and we were able to give them that choice only from that day.”
SEA-ME-WE 5 is Sri Lanka’s future
Prof. Samarajiva was firm on the fact that SEA-ME-WE 5 is Sri Lanka’s future. “It is coming and landing in Matara and we are very happy about it. Not only it is going to be landing in Matara but we are also going to have a repair facility in the Hambantota Port.”
According to him, SEA-ME-WE 5 is going to reduce latency because for first time, Sri Lanka will be directly connected to the consortium cable (previous connections through branch cables) and Hambantota Port will host the submarine cable depot, which may improve speed of recovery from cable breaks in region.
He also talked about the Bay of Bengal Gateway (BBG) which is going to be a hybrid terrestrial and submarine cable that bypasses Malacca, Suez and Hormuz choke points. It will be commissioned by the end of 2015 and Dialog Axiata has already announced that it will invest $ 30 million in the project.
“You might recall the chaos created when the cables were cut few years ago. When the cables are cut, we need backup and we need redundancy. We will get that when we have a completely different hybrid cable that would go and land in Oman and then will go over Europe. This reduces vulnerability to the risk of being cut off from SLT-controlled cables,” said Prof. Samarajiva.
“I think we are making progress and facilities-based competition is occurring. We have got adequate cables and we are not a weak and a vulnerable country, but it will take some time to be reflected in price and quality differences. In the short term, we still need regulatory actions. The main problem lies with broadband prices. When you take it as a whole, retail is low but the input is still too high. That means that companies are either not making enough money or in some cases, they are losing money, which is not a good omen in the long term.”
He asserted that steps should be taken to increase the quality of broadband and raised concerns on the fact that too much power is still concentrated at SLT which built its cable stations and cables when it was a part of the Government.
“Overall in Asia, internet is a weak link; not only for Sri Lanka but for many of the countries in the region. We have been working with the UNESCAP and now it is on top of their agenda to build a build terrestrial-maritime mesh network that will not be owned by telecom companies but all the telcos will be able to use it on an open access basis. With that, I think we will be able to truly claim the leadership of the internet that is ours, that is Asia’s.”
– Pix by Upul Abayasekara