Providing internet to Sri Lanka is by no means an easy task. According to the TRCSL, as per the latest statistics, Sri Lanka has a total of 4,560,973 internet subscriptions. Considering that the population of Sri Lanka is 20,810,816, that’s only 21% of the population who have access to the Internet. Speaking of internet, a hot topic that has been rising in the air is Google’s Project Loon and their involvement in Sri Lanka.
In a rather surprising turn of events, Project Loon, Google’s plan to cover the Earth with a host of balloons that beam internet to the ground has changed their course, quite literally. In an announcement a few days ago, Astro Teller, the head of Google X which is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc, (AKA the Parent company of Google) explained how the Loon team has managed to control the navigation of the balloons so well that they can now concentrate them in areas of need.
This means that the total number of balloons would drop from hundreds to just dozens. It also means a significant drop in deployment time to specific coverage areas. In addition, Teller has also stated that this will help the company get a greater value out of each balloon, and increases the chance of the project becoming profitable. Certainly this might be the icing on the whole cake. If that winds up being the case, it might be the most important takeaway from this change.
Meanwhile in Sri Lanka
Say the words “Google Loon” out loud today and there’s a chance that you’re bound to be met with a retort, a snort and high pitched laughter. By all means, the success of Project Loon, is debatable. if implemented commercially, it would be an asset to the country’s economy. The fact of the matter is that you have the media eschewing the facts and messing it up.
It all began with free Wi-Fi for everybody
The Information Communication Agency of Sri Lanka under the direction of the Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure took steps to develop the national broadband infrastructure. These steps would have facilitated the universal connectivity for Internet access in Sri Lanka. This took the form of Wi-Fi hotspots which were placed at all major places of gatherings such as bus halts, railway stations and public locations.
As such, Free Wi-Fi is currently available in 500 locations and according to ICTA, by the end of 2017, over a 1000 locations will have Free Wi-Fi. It was rebranded as a big data analysis for Wi-Fi usage. Whether or not it was a success remains debatable. All we know is that ICTA called it a project to see how individuals were making use of the Free Wi-Fi Project.
Following the Free Wi-Fi Project, we got wind that a more interesting concept was headed to Sri Lanka. Chamath Palihapitiya, Founder of Rama Corporation facilitated discussions between Google and the Government along with ICTA. The goal of Rama was simple: to bring quality internet access to the underserved people of the world.
Enter Google Loon
On 15th of June 2015 a proposal termed ‘Project Rama’ was formally handed over to ICTA. Chamath facilitated the discussions between the Sri Lankan Government and the team for Project Loon. Spearheaded by Google, in its essence, Project Loon would be a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to extend Internet connectivity to people in rural and remote areas worldwide. The balloons would hover about 18KMs above the earth, beaming down signals thus ensuring internet accessibility and speeds similar to those of Colombo, in areas where the population density is low such as Mullaitivu.
Sri Lanka was to be the first country to have Project Loon
On the 28th of July 2015, at another press conference, it was announced that Sri Lanka had been chosen to be the very first country to have full internet coverage courtesy of the Google Loon project. This was essentially the birth of Project Loon in Sri Lanka. It was sadly also the birth of many a ridiculous question asked both by media and citizen as one (which left us questioning our purpose in life).
One wild theory that surfaced was that Google would be providing free internet courtesy of Google Fiber to Sri Lanka thus rendering all Telcos obsolete. Then you had the political influences that called foul play because of the parliament elections at the time and saw the Loon project as an attempt to boost the standings of certain political parties.
Nonetheless, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between 4 parties. They were the ICTA, Google Loon LLC, and two of its affiliates (Lotus Flare Holdings Limited and Rama Co.). The MoU would be for the purpose of formalizing working relationships and facilitating pilot project implementation.
There would be no costs involved
Moving on with the Google Loon project, Google was happy at Sri Lanka’s commitment to make use of Information Technology to develop Sri Lanka. As such, they offered their unique network of balloons. These balloons had the ability to extend 4G LTE data coverage throughout Sri Lanka in cooperation with local mobile networks. Again let me reiterate that Google gave the Sri Lankan Government these balloons without any charges (hidden or visible). They were meant as a test to confirm if Sri Lanka would provide an adequate environment for Loon.
At a recent press release, Harin Fernando, Minister of Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructure stated that the government chose to take a risk by attempting to cover the country with 4G using Loon. It was an acceptable risk because the Government wasn’t going to be spending any money whatsoever. A total of 13 balloons would be used to cover Sri Lanka.
This in turn would require a mission control of sorts to ensure the balloons are always in Sri Lanka and covering the necessary rural areas. At the same time, once the balloons expire after 100 days, they need to be recovered. Afterwards a new balloon needs to be manufactured and launched. All this is expensive. So who would be paying for this?
We at ReadMe on the other hand, interviewed ICTA CEO Muhunthan Canagey 2 years ago, where he stated that not a cent of public money would be used in this project. If a large payment was necessary, then it’s required by law that a cabinet paper be produced and approved. The lack of a cabinet paper requesting funds is proof that public funds aren’t being spent on the project.
A request was made to obtain the necessary spectrum for testing Project Loon
Moving on, a paper on the Google Loon Project was submitted to the meeting of the Inter Ministerial Committee (IMC) held on 9th November 2015. Here it was agreed that in order to facilitate the testing of the pilot project TRCSL be requested to release a 10 MHz Pair in the 700 band spectrum. This would be for a period of one year. Essentially this was a request made to obtain the necessary spectrum for testing Project Loon. In accordance to this, TRCSL and ICTA had a series of meetings to identify possible frequency allocations proposed for the Google Loon tests.
Chamath held a press conference to introduce Project Rama
Fast forward to 7th of April 2016 where a press conference was hosted by Chamath Palihapitiya. Attending this press conference was Minister Harin Fernando, P G Kumarasinghe Sirisena – Chairman of SLT, Dileepa Wijesundera, CEO of SLT, Dr Hans Wijayasuriya, then CEO of Dialog and senior staff of ICTA. At the event, Chamath addressed the media on the Google Loon Pilot and Rama Corporation. During his visit he also held discussions with telcos as to how Rama could be used with their networks.
Following this press conference, we at ReadMe, wrote an article highlighting what Rama was. They would act as a neutral intermediary that allows telcos to access to the Loon balloons and provides the software to handle billing with other services. They would essentially take it upon themselves to bring quality internet access to the underserved people of the world.
Two months later, on the 28th of June 2016, His Excellency the President Maithripala Sirisena appointed Chamath Palihapitiya as Sri Lanka’s Digital Brand Ambassador. As such, with the support of Chamath, the Government of Sri Lanka hoped to bring down venture capital investments to the country.
Another meeting was on the 2nd of August, 2016. This was when the State Minister of Defense chaired a meeting. It was attended by:
- Eng. Karunasena Hettiarachchi – Secretary of Defense
- Mr. Wasantha Deshapriya – Secretary Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure,
- Air Vice Marshal D L S Dias – Director Air Operations, SLAF
- Air Vice Marshal R J Pathirage – Director Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering, SLAF
In addition, senior staff from the Civil Aviation Authority, TRCSL and ICTA were present. A team from Google Loon LLC. presented the technology and flight control techniques of Project Loon and clarified all issues raised. Following the meeting, ICTA sent out an official letter to the TRCSL, requesting the necessary spectrum for Project Loon on the 17th of October 2016.
The frequency ranges in question were as follows:
- 700MHz (LTE Band 28) for communication from Loon Balloon to your phone
- 70GHz and 80GHz for uplink and downlink between Loon base station and Loon Balloon
- 5.8GHz – for Wi-Fi uplink and downlink between Loon base station and Loon Balloon
- 70GHz and 80GHz for communication between balloon to balloon
- 5.8GHz – for Wi-Fi communication between balloon to balloon
Through our own investigation, we found that the TRCSL replied to ICTA on the 30th of November 2016, stating that the frequencies requested could not be used as per ITU regulations. This was because as per ITU regulations, these frequencies were already in use for other purposes. However, it should be noted that TRCSL was informed of this from the ITU on the 14th of October 2016. Yet, they only informed ICTA a month later in November.
Then came some disturbing news
On the 7th of December 2016, there was an announcement by the TRCSL that Sri Lanka might have to abandon all plans for Project Loon. The reason? TRCSL finally revealed the letter received from the ITU where they stated that the frequencies put forth could not be used.
According to Google’s initial request, the 700MHz spectrum is what is needed for Loon balloons to communicate with user devices. According to the ITU, this frequency range was already in use by mobile, TV & radio broadcasting, and other signals operating in relatively low altitudes thereby it wasn’t available for high altitudes such as used in Google loon project as it would cause interference with these operators.. Since Sri Lanka is a member of the ITU, that would pose a new issue about using the 700 MHz spectrum for this testing.
Furthermore, the the 5.8GHz band requested by Google is allocated to several radio services, which is the process of locating an object via the use of use of radio waves. As such, they are designated for industrial, scientific and medical applications. This frequency is also used for low-power device which are operated on the ground. If a platform such as Project Loon were to use this, it could cause interference in service allocated to this band in Sri Lanka or other countries, regardless of whether it’s licenced or not.
Furthermore, WRC-97 identified frequency band of 47.2-47.5 and 47.9-48.2GHZ for HAPS (High altitude platforms) such as Project Loon, and later in WRC-2000, identified frequency bands 27.9-28.2GHz for fixed downlink and 31.0-31.3GHz for fixed uplink for 23 countries in regions 1 and 3 including Sri Lanka, Maldives and India.
According to Muhunthan Canagey, the ITU is to take up the issue of allocating 700MHz spectrum for high altitudes at their member committee in 2019. However, if Sri Lanka were to test the Loon project, that would essentially mean that Sri Lanka would be violating the terms set by the ITU, thus canceling out whatever possibility there was of implementing Project Loon in the first place.
Recently, things with Project Loon have got a tad complicated. The media gave prominence to people such as Wasantha Samarasinghe of Voice Against Corruption who made questionable claims having insufficient knowledge about Project Loon. For example, Wasantha said that the MoU between ICTA and Google was a fraud. There is no basis for this claim. He further went on to question why Rama would be involved in this, when TRCSL was fully capable of handling it by themselves. In reply, we say that the TRCSL has no connection with Project Loon or Google. TRCSL is merely a regulator. He also stated that the Project was an attempt to siphon off spectrum from Sri Lanka to be used by 3rd parties such as Rama who would then sell it.
The Government owns the spectrum and merely leases it out to interested parties via an auction. As mainstream media, they should really know better than to listen to people who claim to know something, but in reality can’t tell heads from tails.
What makes the 700MHz spectrum special?
Let’s focus on the dispute and disparity over the 700Mhz spectrum that was in use. This frequency was specified by Google for Sri Lanka. Simply put, using the 700MHz frequency was Google’s attempt to test the waters to see if Project Loon was viable commercially. According to Harin Fernando, the Minister of Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructure, there was a speculation that test phases of Project Loon would be conducted in other countries too, preferably not governed by ITU to conduct their pilot tests.
In the letter sent from the ITU to the TRCSL, the director General of the ITU suggested the TRCSL reaches out to the Administration of New Zealand, as they have hosted a Google Loon test in 2013, and as such may provide us with advice on compatibility, legal, administrative and safety issues related to the tests.
We now know that New Zealand successfully carried out a test pilot for Project Loon using unlicensed 2.4GHz frequency. This means that the frequency is free for anyone to use. Furthermore, Peru too had successfully completed a test pilot of Project Loon as they had successfully communicated with their neighboring countries. This meant that they were in agreement and as such no harmful interference would be caused if Peru tested Project Loon. So while people were pointing fingers at each other, on why Google dropped Sri Lanka from Project Loon, Peru got the green light for it.
Whereas for Sri Lanka, the 700Mhz spectrum is currently used for Terrestrial television broadcasting. We got in contact with the TRCSL and asked them exactly how much of the 700MHz spectrum was available for a new broadcaster or mobile operator. Their answer was that a majority of the spectrum was used up. As such, there’s so little of it left.
Furthermore, the 700MHz spectrum is used by TV broadcasters, Radio broadcasters and mobile operators. Mobile operators especially find the spectrum important as it will be necessary in the future for high speed internet. This is what makes the 700MHz spectrum so valuable. There’s so little and everyone wants it.
But exactly how valuable is this spectrum? Well, the price of the spectrum is not something that is set by the Government. Rather, the spectrum is given a base price, following which it is put up for an auction. From there, the market determines the price and this can bring the government a lot of money. If we take France as an example, a total of $3 Billion was raised from an auction of the 700MHz spectrum, where the companies there were taking the 5MHz section of it.
Sri Lanka has signed the APT spectrum plan which means the government is committed to migrate our existing television stations to a digital platform. Once that is done, all terrestrial broadcasting can switch over to digital frequencies, thus releasing the 700MHz spectrum to be used for mobile data transmission. This is a vastly costly affair for the TV and Radio broadcasters as they would have to overhaul their entire infrastructure. Viewers and listeners too would need digital receivers. This raises a potential challenge not for us colombo dwellers, but rather those in rural areas. Incidentally, those in rural areas are the largest market for TV and radio broadcasters.
This begs another question. Who is responsible for the digitization process to move these terrestrial broadcasting channels to the digital era? Is it the Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure? Is it the TRCSL? Is it ICTA? Have they taken any steps to see this plan through? If so, what are they? If not, then why not?
It should also be noted that for Government projects, TRCSL would have to give free spectrum without going for the auction process. So a project such as Loon would be given the spectrum, without going through the auction process.
A paper was presented
Irrespective of what the TRCSL said, a paper on facilitating the testing to implement the Google Loon Project was presented to the Cabinet by the Hon. Minister for Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure on the 5th of January 2017. In accordance to this, the cabinet recommended to seek the advice of the Attorney General (AG).
The AG coordinated consultations in this connection with the participation of the Secretary, Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure and senior representatives from both TRCSL and ICTA. As of now, the report of the AG is to be presented to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management chaired by the Hon Prime Minister.
Was it all just a hyped up Wordplay?
As you can see, there is no scandal or controversy here. It’s more of a wordplay and an overload of information. In the intricate details of the agreement, it was said that Sri Lanka was a testing ground. If these tests succeeded, then a commercial agreement would have been made with Rama to bring Loon to Sri Lanka officially. But the original agreements that have been signed are purely for testing and doing a pilot. This might have originated from the wordplay used by ICTA where people come to the conclusion that Project Loon would be implemented whereas in reality it was still in the testing phase.
So Project Loon was never a definite project, for lack of a better word. True enough, it would have provided internet access to the whole of the country but the actual plan was to see if it is a viable option. Hence it being called a testing ground. Google, The Sri Lankan Government, ICTA or Rama have absolutely no obligation to implement Project Loon in Sri Lanka. Project Loon would definitely be a boon to Sri Lanka but at the same time, the country’s infrastructure already has sufficient resources to provide coverage to people all over it. If the 700MHz spectrum frees up however, then, we would need additional bandwidth.
Throughout all this, one party has remained rather silent. Where is Rama? What is their view on Google scrapping Project Loon from Sri Lanka? We reached out to CEO Chamath Palihapitiya via email to get his opinion. At the time of publishing, he is yet to reply.
The success of Project Loon remains to be determined. While it would be beneficial for Sri Lanka, it’s already been two years and we’re still pretty much where we started. Prominence given to the wrong people has lead to the project has been clouded with misinformation and false claims. We also feel that ICTA and Rama’s mistake was not reaching out to the TRCSL from the initial kick. SInce spectrum is central, why not start with the people in charge of it?
Nonetheless, that doesn’t excuse mainstream media outlets like Maharaja Newsfirst from eschewing the facts to paint an incorrect picture and asking facepalm-worthy questions at press conferences such as, “Can Rama do Project Loon without Google?” For the record, we’d like to state again that Rama does not own Google or Project Loon. They would only provide the relevant hardware and software for implementation of Project Loon. If anyone from Maharaja Newsfirst is reading this article, we urge them to spend 5 minutes doing some basic research with Google, Bing or even Yahoo before asking embarrassing questions like that again.
Ultimately, there’s no major scandal regarding Google Loon being in Sri Lanka. There’s no denying it’s a mess, but that’s due to the players in the spectrum game. Everybody from TV & Radio broadcasters to Telecom operators want their hands on the spectrum. With so little of it available, the price of it has skyrocketed. Spectrum has become invisible gold and nobody wants to share. Thus, if Google Loon is to come to Sri Lanka, then it would mean not only breaking ITU regulations but also require a cunning play by either the Ministry, ICTA or Rama itself in this Game of Spectrum.