The first ever Sri Lanka National Broadband Forum (yes that indeed is a mouthful) was held yesterday, the 8th of August at the Hilton Hotel Colombo. The event, co-hosted by the Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commissions, and co-organized by Huawei Technologies revolved around the theme of “A Better Connected Sri Lanka”.
The forum brought together senior policy makers of the government, local operators, service operators and industry stakeholders to shape a shared vision of facilitating the spread of broadband access to all as a key component to enhance the digital economy in Sri Lanka.
The event featured a line-up of speakers from the Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commissions, Huawei, Ovum, iFlix and major local telecommunication operators.
Kicking things off was the traditional lighting of the oil lamp by the various dignitaries and the singing of the national anthem. Immediately afterwards on screen, a video played emphasizing how communication helped shape the country’s economy starting from the late 1900s to the 2000s and to present day. Think of it as a means to showcase how telecommunication has been used in establishing a fully-fledged system to facilitate the growth of broadband in the country.
Wasantha Deshapriya, Secretary of the Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure was up on stage to deliver the welcome address. He thanks Min. Harin Fernando for the opportunity and also for the hard work he has put in in collaborating to make this event a success. He also thanks Huawei Technologies and their role in developing ICT infrastructure and broadband access throughout the country.
He then spoke about the difficulties faced by the government to facilitate a broadband infrastructure throughout Sri Lanka. Mostly, it’s the bottom of the social pyramid that is adversely affected by this. One plan of the government is the migrating the government infrastructure to a more electronically developed government or a Smart eGovernment.
Wasantha also explained how we need to look at how HR can be better integrated in the ICT sector with the deficit present in the HR areas in relation to ICT. We need to work together to deliver the potential this sector can deliver, he said.
Next up was Hon. Harin Fernando, Minister of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure speaking on the National Broadband Vision for Sri Lanka.
At the time only 25-30% of Sri Lanka’s population had access to Broadband. Even lesser had access to a smartphone. HE spoke about the LGN (Local Government Network) and the HDM (Household Digital Management) Digital E-Card that would be issued to each and every citizen in the country. The goals of these projects are to create digital classrooms. As such, they will include 50 schools to be selected that will have Tablet PCs for all children in school so that they can have their entire curriculum on that. He also spoke about the advancements in internet access such as the BBG and the Dialog Submarine cable and even the Google Loon project.
We need to move forward, we cannot live in Silos. We cannot survive on our own networks. Rest assured, we will bring Sri Lanka to a better future by next year.
Next up was Dr. CW Cheung, Consulting Director of OVUM who spoke to us on the Broadband Market Insight of Asia Pacific and Sri Lanka. He spoke about the macro impacts and benefits of broadband such as social benefits, new employment opportunities and increase in the growth of GDP. He then spoke about the BDI or Broadband Development Index put forth by Ovum. This basically ranks countries globally based on speed of technology migration to fast broadband. It also looks at FBB (Fixed Broadband) and MBB (Mobile Broadband) access with favor to fast broadband.
With regard to Sri Lanka and its standing in the rank, we are 7th, located towards the mid-tier regional ranking based on comparatively high mobile and fixed broadband penetration.
Mobile broadband penetration 3G and above is around 20%, whilst fixed broadband is around 14%. In order to stimulate these, we need to consider policy measures to manage demand side awareness, needs, affordability, utilization and experience.
Ovum’s Consumer insights survey indicates that Indian and global respondents are more active on PCs across almost all activities. The digitalization of Sri Lanka will create demand and supply side drivers. This will elicit pent up demand for digital services and applications.
Finally, he spoke about Sri Lanka Development bottleneck and barriers. Fixed broadband structure is very Important, Cheung emphasized. We should have a targeted policy and regulations for Fixed Broadband development. We should strike a balance between competition and cooperation. We also have to work on the NBP (National Broadband Policy). We do seem to have our work cut out for us, but we can do it.
In a parallel room, a gathering was taking place: A Q&A session with Hon. Minister Harin Fernando and Mr. Wasantha Deshapriya to discuss any and all queries related to broadband. The first question was the main challenges faced by Sri Lanka to develop the broadband industry. To this Mr. Deshapriya replied that we need to increase broadband access to Sri Lanka. He also added that Fiber and 3G/4G connection penetration is low. These are a deficit in supply side due to infrastructure issues. Most services can be provided online which would also improve the quality of life with relation to eGovernment services. While these are all good, there is still a need for more people to be available.
Another question asked was regarding departments and institutions not available for digital infrastructure, to which the Hon. Minister replied that the infrastructure will be available by 2017.
Are we ready for digitization?
The next question was, Is the Sri Lankan government ready for digitization? The minister’s answer was simple: We have to start from somewhere. What we have today is not what we are going to have 5 years from now. Technology changes and so does the content.
With regard to providing FTTH (Fiber-to-the-home) connections, which was the next question, the Minister explained that even with 12500 distribution point for fiber connections and each distribution point capable of giving out 8 connections, there still exists a lack of connectivity due to various issues such as monopolies and political issues.
Another question asked was why the switch to Fiber has not been carried out as opposed to LTE/4G. Indeed fiber connections are hellishly fast, but with this speed also comes a great cost. Adding a data block to a fiber connection still costs a metaphorical arm and leg as opposed to an LTE connection or even a broadband connection.
What about jobs? No, not Steve, but rather actual jobs. With regard to loss of jobs related to digitization of the country’s economy, there will also be an influx of new jobs created. For example, Harin explained how programming modules will be added to school curriculum thus enabling these students to pursue new employment opportunities.
The next question dealt with the Free WiFi project, a somewhat touchy subject these days. Located at over 250 sites with 150 still to be launched, and utilizing resources from Dialog, SLT, LankaCom, LankaBell and Mobitel, these sites still have issues such as Telcos not willing to share their network bandwidth. If you go to an area covered by dialog, SLT would not be willing to provide their bandwidth to that particular station.
According to a 2015 Report by SLT, the telco giant noted that they would give access to other telcos to use their existing backbone, the million-dollar question being at what price? Harin took on the question explaining that he’s waiting for SLT to restructure themselves.
An interesting question asked was how the data of users is monitored. For example, what happens to the data that is unused? Think about it. You’re paying for the data, but you’re not using it. So where does it go at the end of the month? If you take a call, you know exactly how much you spent on the call. But for data, that is not the case. Adding to this question was the validity of data at the end of the month.
With regard to the 400 WiFi stations, there still exists an awareness issue, where most people still do not know what these 400 stations are and where they are located. All these, Harin says, will be taken care of in due time.
The discussion then took a slightly absurd turn as the true purpose of Google Loon and free Wifi was asked. Rumors of the project being used for political purposes was asked which Harin debunked with a dose of humor.
The minister then proceeded to make a statement in Sinhala for the media where he outlined the finer points of the discussion.
Moving back to the Grand Ballroom, we joined the audience for a presentation on the Broadband Industry Collaboration Experience in Indonesia presented by the Chairman of the Indonesia FFTH Association (IFA).
Firaz Markar, General Manager of iFlix Sri Lanka was up next to talk about Driving The Online Entertainment revolution in Sri Lanka. There’s an online revolution happening in every industry everyday Markar says. Fixed lines are moving onto online. Everyone is on their phone with them connected to the internet.
He then goes on to show how the evolution of content has changed over the years. From buying CDs, to paying for individual songs to having all the music you could possibly ever need (Spotify), an entire world of content is at our fingertips.
With the next decade, people will be completely connected to the internet, with a super computer in their hand, hungry for access to global content. He also spoke about their vison to lead the online entertainment revolution in emerging markets redefining TV for 1 billion people. He emphasizes that the content provided has to be of high quality.
Next up was a presentation by the Vice President, Fixed Network, Huawei who spoke to us about smarter ways to develop broadband. 3 challenges in achieving broadband business success, cost (ROI), Efficiently (TTM) and take-up (rate). He then spoke about the status quo of how much it costs to provide FTTH in 12 countries. He uses china as an example to emphasize how to reduce FTTH cost and to improve efficiency.
Following that presentation was a Panel discussion moderated by Dr. CW Cheung with the following panel members
The discussion raised a number of important questions which were met with very intelligent and insightful replies by each panel member.
With the end of the Panel discussion, it was also time for the first ever Sri Lanka Broadband Forum to come to a close.
Mr. Sunil Sirisena, Director General, Telecommunicaion Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka was up on stage to deliver the summary of the meeting. He thanked all those participating and urged collaboration between all industry leaders and innovators to add momentum to broadband development. As the first of its kind, the event was organized rather well and everything was seen to in order. With the end of the summary, the audience (ourselves included) was invited to partake of the delectable lunch prepared (which we did graciously).
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