INET Colombo 2015 – 20 Years of Internet in Sri Lanka


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The Internet’s something we generally take for granted, at least until the usual service breakdown occurs. However, very few of us actually know how it came to be. INET Colombo 2015, held on 9th June 2015 at the Kingsbury, chose to showcase the development of the Internet. It was sponsored by Sri Lanka Telecom PLC, Dialog Axiata PLC, the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka (National Partner) and co-organised by the Internet Society Sri Lanka Chapter, the LK Domain Registry, University of Moratuwa and LEARN.

The event kicked off with the President of the Internet Society, Prof. Gihan Dias, delivering the welcome speech. May 11th 1995 was the date that Internet was commercially available to Sri Lanka, he says, touching on the entities that helped evolved it – pioneer individuals, organizations and so on – before making way for Rajnesh Singh, the Director of Asia Pacific Bureau of the Internet society, who speaks about how the internet has changed people’s lives – from products to processes to people.

The session that unfolded next was, in a large part, rather a nostalgic one. The first speaker of the session was Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, the founder and chairman of CINTEC. His talk spoke initial laying out of the Internet for Sri Lanka and the life story of CINTEC – which was instrumental in setting up many of Sri Lanka’s Internet initiatives, facts later confirmed as he veered into the story of the setting up of the Computer Policy and how all that came to be.

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He then spoke about the present and the future: growing risks of global breakdown due to multiple heavy shocks such as financial economic crisis, persistent poverty and resource shortage, the top 25% of the world’s population currently consuming an astounding 85% of the world’s resources, climate change – quite a dire scenario, in fact.

The key issues then and now, he said, is defining a Sri Lankan vision for sustainable development and adapting the ICT policy to it.

The next speaker for the session was Kilnam Chon speaking about the Past, Present and Future of the Internet. In case you haven’t hard of him, Kilnam Chon is known as the Father of Internet in Korea. He started off with a question: what can we do for 3-4 billion new internet users in the coming decades? How does one facilitate for them?

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His presentation was like a trip down memory lane, or more fittingly, a time machine. Beginning from the 1940s with the birth of ENIAC, he took us through the pages of history, to the 1970’s – which saw the first computer networks, with the USA having ARPANET, UK’s Coloured Book and France running Cyclades. Then came the 1990s and everything changed. More specifically, the Web changed everything. Rather than wait for a commercial version of DARPA or ARPANET which was what the original plan was, scientists and researchers came up with a way make the Web accessible to the public and it quickly spun its way into the hearts of users (pun intended). The power of the internet was forever changed from the research sector to the commercial sector.

Fast forward to the 2000’s where the Internet is used as a Social infrastructure. Chon spoke about social media and how technologies such as WeChat, Linem Weibo, Facebook and Twitter are predominantly used in Asia, changing how people perceive the Internet.  The models used for developed countries, he emphasized, should not be forced onto those that are developing. This world is different. In a sense, we’ve jumped ahead of the queue.

After the tea break it was Eran Wickramaratne, Deputy Minister of Highways and Investment Promotion, on “The dawn of the e-Sri Lanka Initiative” – how it basically began with a set of simple pictures in his head (like citizens using ICT to fill out an election form) to what it is today. He also spoke about the shortcomings of the project, including how programs like Nenasala fell short of their mark.

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Next up was Nimal Ratnayake of the University of Peradeniya. He spoke in detail about LEARN and its inception. Initiated in the mid 80’s, LEARN was a national network, and had its own email facility called LEARNmail, utilizing the UUCP protocol. Then in 1993, three Universities (Colombo, Peradeniya and the Open University) were linked using 64kbps leased lines; as demand spread, 1995 saw

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the first commercially available online connection in Sri Lanka, provided by Compuserve. LEARN then expanded to other universities and education facilities. Time went on and LEARN upgraded, evolving into a larger network with each upgrade.

Then in 2006 came the MPLS network (via SLT). It’s hard to believe that not so long ago most of us didn’t actually have Internet connections. Ratnayake addressed the issue of whether we’re getting to where we need to be, pointing out limitations in service provider offerings, and the lack of trained staff and problems of retaining trained staff.

“Our regulatory framework also has a bit of work that needs to be done. We are still focused on voice and there are legal issues with promoting VoIP technologies. Then you get the underlying fact that when the voice of the service provider is heard, the voice of the user seems to go unnoticed.”

The next speaker for the day was Kanchana Kanchanasut of intERLab, of the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand. Her topic was Thai Internet after 25 years. After exploring the hurdles Thailand had to clear to gain Internet access, she also ran the audience through notable achievements – such as the launch of the APNICin Bangkok in 1994 and the Internet usage boom of 1996.

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During her work at the Institute, she and her co-workers also found that ISPs decline to spend funding on connecting those in rural areas. As a result they launched Net2Home, where every home in a village had access to internet. They also built mobile routers – cheap, efficient devices, costing less than a hundred USD – for rural community and wireless mesh networks. They cast this and many more activities as research that the students, too, could take part in; for example, when they identified language to be a huge barrier in the rural areas, they worked on translation tools for emails. A worthy example, perhaps, for our universities to emulate.

The next speaker was Raul Echeberria of the Internet Society speaking about the current challenges in internet governance.

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His topic revolved mainly around the legal aspects of the Internet, such as the World Summit on Information Security – started in 2003, held consecutively from that point onwards. 10 years after the original summit, he said, there a much more mature relationship among all stakeholders, going on to detail how countries are reacting to the concept of Internet Governance as a whole.

The next session was rather thought provoking. Satish Babu, Director of ICFOSS India, talked about Net Neutrality. Quite a controversial topic these days.

His presentation includes a number of cartoon caricatures, one of which depicted officials narrowing down content for subscribers by literally cutting phone lines.

He started by explaining that with the proliferation of apps such as WhatsApp and other communication apps, Telcos have been increasingly concerned about VAS, as their revenues drop due to people using these apps. According to his presentation, there are various types of retaliation that Telcos can (and do) use to combat this: blocking torrents, FTP, users, certain applications and so on.The end results of this would be that there is stifling of user choice and innovation, violation of the end-to-end principle, and the undermining of the basic democratic architecture of the internet.

He also explained that there is technically no law enforcing Net Neutrality in India but other countries do enforce it; however, the battle for Net Neutrality is not yet been won, and by itself is just one in the larger war of the Free Internet. Unless civil society plays a larger role in Internet governance, we will not be able to voice our opinions.

The next set of sessions took place after lunch. 

The first speaker was Asela Galappattige of Sri Lanka Telecom presenting his session on how Internet in Sri Lanka works.

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After a general overview, he boke down the basic technologies utilized for internet access in Sri lanka: starting from wired (copper telephone lines) with Dial-up, TDM and ADSL to Fiber. Then wireless, which spans from CDMA to GPRS, EDGE, WiMax, 3G, 4G LTE and Wi-Fi. Terms such as NAT and DNS were thrown at the audience who seem to be glued to his words with intense looks of concentration etched on their faces.

The Internet registry was also briefly mentioned with ISPs acting as the local Internet Registry. Fun fact; Google carries a major chunk of Sri Lanka’s traffic (something to be expected).

Srinath Perera of WSO2 was up next talking about building Sri Lankan brands and putting Sri Lanka on the Open Source Map, repeating the mantra that Sri Lanka can never compete in quantity, but it can (and should) compete on quality.

Next up was Prof. Saman Amarasinghe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His topic was about how the Internet is redefining education. If you have a question, he said, the solution back in the day was to literally go for a class and find out the answer to your question. Else you could find a book at the British Council Library or American Center Library. Another option was to find a teacher or an expert who can explain it to you. Last but not least, you could go by trial and error.

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Compare that with the present where if you have a question, you can ask in online via Google or Wikipedia, find an online discussion forum or even buy books online.

He talked at length about the wide variety of courses and material available online nowadays – touching on MIT’s OpenCourseWare, where almost all of MIT’s courses (2260 to be exact) including materials are available for free. Similarly, there’s EdX, another massive open online course provider and online learning platform hosting online university-level courses covering a wide area of topics. The classes are free and you can get an honor code certificate and for a fee, you can also get a verified certificate from the university.

“With regard to education, it has always been limited to factors such as geographic location, income and resources, ability and intelligence and so on, but the internet is democratizing its access to education. You can always keep learning for free.”

Harish Pillay of RedHat was next, talking about Singapore and finding the soul of a smart nation – a brief but informative session revolving around the concept of what makes a smart nation ‘smart’ and the resources and objectives that it requires.

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That brought an end to the presentation and speeches and the crowd broke for a tea break. This was followed by a small game of sorts where those attending were asked to drop their visitng cards in order to be eligible for a draw. The final draw took place just as he tea break concludd with the winners received a free SLT PEO TV connection.

The last session for the event was a panel discussion comprising of the following members and topics
1. Thushan Shanmugarajah – Findmyfare – Building a successful e-commerice service in sri lanka
2. Eric Wickremanayake – Lanka Century Investments – Empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka
3. Chandika Jayasundara – Cinergix/Creately – On Cinergix, and how they compete with Microsoft

Of particular note was Eric’s speech, which centered on the Lankan Angel Network. He explained their mission, the partnerships they’ve build and how they go about empowering entrepreneurship – also shedding some light on the projects they’re involved in. Most of the talent he has seen, he remarked, was not from Colombo, but rather from rural to lesser urban areas.

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With the panel discussion wrapped up and the vote of thanks given, the only thing left was to pack our bags and baggage and head home, which we did.


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