How do we get our data? And why does it cost so much? These are questions that’ve been bugging us for some time now. Some say we buy our data off an ISP in Singapore. Others believe every ISP in Sri Lanka has their own mystical means of communication.
We headed down to the Hutch office to speak to Asanga Ranasinghe, General Manager of IT at Hutchison Telecom. Asanga has a pretty impressive history in telecommunications – including time spent at Ericsson, Bharti Airtel, Nationlink in Central Africa and even a stint as the CTO of Equator Telecom in the Republic of Congo.
#1: Where do we get our data from?
It’s not a question of data, but connectivity.
How this works is, operators like Sri Lanka Telecom invest in building undersea cables that carry data and communications in and out of the country. These cables connect to other cables and, you know, the rest of the Internet. It’s not that simple, but that’s the general picture.
What these operators do is, they pay to build these cables – usually in consortiums. These consortiums can have any number of operators pitching in – some have as many as 16. These operators own a stake in these cables and they generally get access to landing station where the data can enter the country. For example, the SEA-WE-ME-3 cable connects to a landing station in Mount Lavinia.
Once the cable’s up, they then sell connectivity – we’re talking huge volumes of Mbps per month – to domestic Internet Service Providers, who then sell data to customers. For Hutch, the main operator is Sri Lanka Telecom. Sri Lanka. The same is true for most other ISPs in Sri Lanka.
#2: Why is data expensive in Sri Lanka? Is it because of SLT’s monopoly on the undersea cables?
Yes and no. For one, undersea cables and maintenance are expensive. In Sri Lanka, penetration is low, user numbers are low, population is low, so higher charges are needed to cover the costs. India and Singapore have a much higher density of usage. Historically, the ISP rates to Sri Lanka have always been high.
At the same time, operators do pay SLT for whatever data lands in the country. Operator margins are thin: we’ve got so many players for such a small island, and we can’t really afford to increase margins because that gives everyone else a price advantage. For redundancy, we use Bharti Airtel and Lankabell, but main capacity is still in the hands of a few. Until more cables are built, the prices aren’t going to change much.
The situation’s improving. A few years back, each Mbps per month was around $130. Now it’s down to almost half that depending on the volumes bought.
#3: Why is Singapore important?
Routing paths. Most of the data used to be routed through Singapore: that’s usually the most efficient path to get to US-based data. However, with all the investment going on in India, more and more datacenters are going up in India – even Google is moving data from US servers to India, so quite a lot of data is headed towards India at the moment.
#4: How do you deal with the costs?
Well, there’s lots of ways – promoting a more even network usage and all that – but technically, the most effective is caching. Caching takes you most-used data and puts it in a location that’s closer, easier and cheaper to access. Everyone does it – Google, Akamai are some really big players in the caching game.
At Hutch, we do something similar. We have algorithms that monitor HTTP headers for change and use that to intelligently track and store the most-used data on local servers. These are generally Intel-based boxes running customized Linux platforms – Squid, Cachemara, Peerapp are examples of these.
Most of the caching locally is actually YouTube. We’ve been able to save around 30% of the data consumed that way. An ideal solution would be a single cache point for all ISPs in Sri Lanka, but we haven’t been able to get everyone on the same page to do that.
#5: Will Sri Lankan Internet get cheaper anytime soon?
It might. We’ve got two cables coming up – SEA-WE-ME-5 and Dialog’s venture. That might just break the pricing monopoly and drive down costs. Right now, our ISP rates are pretty high for the South-East-Asian region.