Newsfirst Reports Fake News: Project Loon In Limbo

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If you have been keeping an eye on the news lately, you would have noticed that the term “Google Loon” has popped up a few times. To be honest, a few times is an understatement. It popped up faster than Mushrooms in spring. The reason: Maharaja NewsFirst. They’ve taken it upon themselves to highlight each and every aspect of the project. While this is all well and good, they have also taken it upon themselves to publish news content of questionable legitimacy and rather stupid claims while doing so.

As we have been closely following this melodrama, we took it upon ourselves to go through all the facts stated by Newsfirst and their claims and see for ourselves what is true, and what is downright absurd.

Who handles Google Loon? Where the saga with NewsFirst began.

This was when the saga began. The video was published on the 16th of February 2017.

  • The Minister of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure, Harin Fernando, explains that Google used Rama to implement a test project of Loon in Sri Lanka
  • Harin Fernando states, there was no commercial agreement signed.
  • Harin Fernando states, If the test was successful, then and only then would a commercial agreement be signed.
  • He further stated that the TRCSL must provide permission to conduct a pilot project.
  • The spectrum of Sri Lanka has not been sold to anyone, neither has any public funds been used.
  • The minister explained that the 700mhz spectrum wasn’t issued for Google Loon due to ITU regulations.

Our response:

Overall this video deals with the explanation of how Google would use Rama to implement Project Loon. Minister Harin explains things in a logical manner especially about the confusion with regard to the 700MHz spectrum. However, we would like to point out that the video above published by Newsfirst is a shortened version of the press conference missing all the vital parts. We know this as we too were present at this press conference. The same press conference where a reporter from NewsFirst asked the facepalm-worthy question, “Can Rama implement Project Loon without Google?”

Project Loon: The MOU, its legitimacy and ethics questioned

On the 19th of February 2017, Newsfirst published another video showing views of MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Leader of the People’s Liberation Front.

  • The MP claims that the people of Sri Lanka will not be able to claim victory in any IT related victories if they do not have ownership over the wavelengths.
  • The MP further goes on to explain that spectrum is a resource that must be owned by the state.
  • According to the MP, the Government is acting on various ulterior motives to confer these wavelengths on a company selected by them (AKA Rama). According to him, a long process is already under way to achieve this.
  • The company Rama had been selected and a plan has been prepared to confer ownership of these wavelengths to them. Anyone wishing to purchase wavelengths, would have to buy It from Rama.
  • These wavelengths will be far more valuable in the future than now because global technology is developing based on the IT sector.
  • The video then shows another individual from the Anti Corruption Front asking how Rama received this opportunity and why the local telecommunication companies were not.
  • He also added that an agreement was signed between Google and ICTA. Yet, the latter party stated that they do not know how this opportunity was given to Rama.

Our response to MP Anura Kumara Dissanayaka:

So according to the MP, Rama is out to steal and/or purchase our spectrum and then sell it to those who want it. He also states that that Rama wants to steal our national property. Leaving aside the fact that the Spectrum is owned by the Government, one cannot simply waltz into the the TRCSL and say that they are buying our spectrum.

If you spent a bit of time reading what we found, you would know that the Government owns the spectrum, not private entities. The spectrum is sold to them via an auction. This is where the price for it is set. Even after the spectrum is given to a private entity, the Government is the final owner with the private entity having to pay an annual fee.

Spectrum is owned by the government not private entities (Image credits: Android Headlines)
Spectrum is owned by the government not private entities (Image credits: Android Headlines)

This annual fee varies as it is set at the auction when the private entity bought the spectrum. For example: if you buy spectrum in 1920 then you pay the annual fee set at that year even in 2016. Whereas if you were to buy spectrum in 2010 then you would pay the annual fee set at that price forever. While the Government owns the spectrum, it won’t take it away from anyone that bought it unless they stop paying the annual fee or use the spectrum for something other than the purpose they said it was to be intended for.

So government is the owner of the spectrum. As such, it has the power to revoke the license if it’s violated. Rama is neither a TV, Radio or Mobile service provider. It is merely a facilitator to act between Google and the Government of Sri Lanka. It won’t own spectrum either. The only need for spectrum is so that a test can be conducted. If Rama does need spectrum, this would be after a commercial agreement is signed. Even then, it must go through the auction process of the TRCSL to obtain spectrum like everyone else.

Our response to the second individual:

By and large, this individual seems to make a bit more sense. As for how Rama received the opportunity, with Chamath Palihapitiya’s background as a Sri Lankan born Venture Capitalist in Silicon Valley. Chamath acted as a middleman for talks between Google, the Government of Sri Lanka and ICTA Essentially, Rama would act as a neutral intermediary that allows Telecommunication Providers to access the Loon balloons and provides the software to handle billing and other services related to providing internet access with the Loon balloons. This means you will still pay the telcos for your data but the telcos will have to pay a fee to Rama.

As for Why were no LOCAL Telecommunication providers given the opportunity? If you notice, there are six Telco providers in Sri Lanka. Out of these 06 Telecommunication providers, 05 of them are NOT LOCAL. These are:

  • Hutch, which is owned by Hutchison Asia Telecommunications Limited, Hong Kong
  • Dialog, which is owned by Axiata Group, Malaysia
  • Etisalat, which is owned by Etisalat UAE
  • Airtel, which is owned by Bharti Airtel Limited, India
  • Mobitel, which is a subsidiary of Sri Lanka Telecom. SLT in turn is partially owned by a foreign company, which is Global Telecommunications Holdings N.V. of Netherlands that has a 44.98% stake in it.
Guess how many of these telecom operators are actually local companies?
Guess how many of these telecom operators are actually local companies?

This leaves Lanka Bell as the only local Telecommunication provider, which is owned by the Distilleries Corporation of Sri Lanka. So in short, the only local Telecommunication Provider that we have left, is owned by a company that specializes in the creation of alcohol. So there are no real local telecommunication operators besides Lanka Bell.

Had a local telecommunication provider (the only one being Lanka Bell) offered their services or stepped forward, then they would have likely been given the opportunity. Then again, the likeliness of a local Telecom coming forward is rather rare. The main reason being that it’s not economically feasible for local telecom operators to build telecom towers and relevant infrastructure to.

The role of Rama was explained at a press conference in April 2016. It was clear that the reason Rama got this opportunity was because they gave a low cost option to cover Sri Lanka. This option didn’t cost the government a cent. At the same time, it also helped the telecom providers themselves expand their services. So in theory if Loon worked, everybody would have won.

The Voice Against Corruption alleges fraud

This video was posted on the 20th of February 2017. This again was based on the Press conference that Minister Harin was a part of.

  • According to an investigation carried out by Newsfirst, Rama is apparently behind  the Google Loon Project with the ulterior motive of purchasing spectrum and wavelengths in Sri Lanka.
  • A document was presented by a Newsfirst reporter claiming that Rama Corporation was incorporated before the MoU for Project Loon was signed.
  • Wasantha Samarasinghe of the Voice Against Corruption Movement states that the ITU hasn’t given permission for Google to carry out Loon in Sri Lanka. As such, the agreement signed between Rama, its directors and ICTA is fake.
  • Wasantha added that the MoU is the stepping stone to sign an MoU with Google to steal the wavelength / spectrum from Sri Lanka.
  • Wasantha also asked “Why is Rama involved when TRCSL exists?”
  • Azath Salley, Leader – National Unity Alliance expresses his urge that an investigation should be conducted immediately on as to how Rama got this project.
  • Azath Salley also adds that the current CEO of ICTA Muhunthan Canagey should offer his resignation and own up that all these fraudulent matters have happened under his watch. These people should be punished, he says and Muhunthan should resign immediately.

Our response:

Once more, we see Newsfirst blindly rushing forward to interview people who have minimal technical background and actually know little to nothing about Project Loon.  In reality, Chamath met with President Maithripala Sirisena on the 31st of January 2015 where Chamath made his proposal to provide affordable internet to Sri Lanka. Present at the meeting was Dr. Harsha de Silva as well. On the 15th of June 2015 a proposal termed ‘Project Rama’ was formally handed over to ICTA.

Newsfirst
Chamath Palihapitiya meeting with Harsha de Silva and President Maithripala Sirisena

Following this, on the 26th of June 2015, Rama was registered as a corporation. On the 28th of July 2015, 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. Chamath Palihapitiya would be the ultimate beneficiary of Rama. he would also invest through an SIA account as he is in the US. This is why two Sri Lankan citizens who Chamath trusted to carry out the procedures are the directors of Rama.

Moving on, the ITU has neither revoked or given Sri Lanka permission to facilitate the tests for Google Loon. Rather, they recommended that Sri Lanka not allocate the spectrum to facilitate the Google Loon tests as the spectrum requested by Google was already in use by other parties such as Mobile operators and TV/Radio broadcasters (the 700MHz spectrum). Furthermore, the 5.8GHz spectrum which was also denied is used by industrial and medical applications. If Loon were to be in operation, those appliances too would be disrupted. The reason Google wanted to carry out Loon on the 700MHz wavelength was because it was an experiment to see if Project Loon was commercially viable.

If we take an example of Project Loon in another country,New Zealand successfully completed a test pilot of Project Loon using 2.4GHZ wavelength as it is an unlicenced wavelength thereby usable by any party. As we have stated and restated, there was no commercial agreement to use this spectrum. It was just for testing purposes.

Rama was only the facilitator to bring Project Loon to Sri Lanka. In fact, Minister Harin Fernando himself told us personally that if another local company comes forward with a similar project, then the government would be ready to work with them. As for the resignation of Muhunthan Canagey, we don’t see any logical reason to this. At most if not all of the fraudulent claims against Muhunthan Canagey have in fact been created by Newsfirst in an attempt to besmirch the name of the ICTA CEO by means of this smear campaign.

The Twisted Truth

Maharaja Newsfirst’s most recent video shows what Newsfirst calls “The Truth” but in essence is just more false claims.

  • According to the video, Chamath Palihapitiya met President Maithripala Sirisena on the 6th of April 2016.
  • According to the video, the Loon balloon that was aimed for Sri Lanka had crashed.
  • It also states that the balloon entered the Sri Lankan Airspace in February 2016.

Our response

Basically this is Newsfirst attempting to discredit Rama and Chamath again. The legitimacy of the establishment of Rama is again pulled into question. Though according to Newsfirst, Chamath met the President almost a year later. In reality, Chamath visited Sri Lanka twice. The first time was in January 2015 and the second time was in April 2016 Newsfirst, unfortunately decided to only report on the second coming of Chamath, once again showing off their level of research.

With regard to the balloon that crashed, On 17 February 2016, a Loon balloon crashed in the tea-growing region of Gampola, Sri Lanka while carrying out tests. In reality, the balloon crash was controlled and scheduled. In a letter from Google itself, it was confirmed that the landing was planned and controlled.

The video further takes content from our original video and attempts to misinform the public. This is done by taking segments from the video and playing them out of context. Once again, NewsFirst twisted the facts and attempted to make false accusations with regard to the 700MHz spectrum. The video ends with some lines of text stating that Newsfirst will “continue to report without fear or favor when we find evidence of a violation of public trust.” Newsfirst cut out the parts of our video which states that no commercial agreement was signed.

Which brings us to today

Today, the 6th of March saw more developments. We learned that Newsfirst and Muhunthan Canagey have been in contact with each other. Muhunthan stated that he gave Newsfirst the opportunity to come to his office to interview him. But Newsfirst declined stating that Muhunthan would either have to come to their office or answer questions via a phone call.

Newsfirst
A screenshot of a conversation between Muhunthan Canagey and a member of Newsfirst

Newsfirst then goes on to comment stating that they have no obligation to come to Muhunthan’s office to carry out the interview. What we ask is, If they are a media organization, shouldn’t they indeed have an obligation to cover the story thoroughly? Especially since they have produced countless other videos on this topic?

It’s not like Newsfirst lacks the resources or the time to interview people especially with a topic that they themselves made popular and controversial over the past few weeks. If they can go out of their way to do more intense interviews with politicians, we really don’t see why they couldn’t have interviewed Muhunthan Canagey.

Let us also not forget that Newsfirst used our video in their news segment without giving us due credit. Apart from it being plagiarism, it also showcases their questionable skills in video editing. For example, where the video published by us is 20 minutes in duration, Newsfirst strips it down to a mere 7 minute clip and places it out of context leaving out the crucial parts.

Additionally, the appointment of Muhunthan Canagey as CEO of ICTA has also been pulled into question. According to Newsfirst, the President has only appointed Muhunthan as a Director and not the CEO. However, we would like to point out that the President merely approves the Directors who are appointed by the Treasury, which is the Ministry of Finance. This is because ICTA is a state owned enterprise. It is the decision of the Board of Directors to decide, who amongst them will serve as the CEO. As such, even if the President appointed Muhunthan Canagey only as a Director, it is not unlawful for him to serve as the CEO.  

We report, you decide.

For a news reporting agency whose sole dedication is apparently to deliver the truth, Newsfirst certainly has gone out of their way to screw up the facts and twist them to suit their own deeds. Couple that with giving prominence to people who have no knowledge regarding a particular subject matter and you find yourself cooking up a recipe for disaster.

Before you go around making false accusations and blatantly ripping off content made by others, do yourselves (and us as well) a favor and learn the ethics of good journalism. As for Newsfirst continuing to report without fear or favor when there is evidence of a violation of public trust, by all means do go ahead. But do us all a favor, and leave the Tech to us.

22 COMMENTS

  1. It’s sad that the media outfits of Sri Lanka has come down to this level from their glorious days. Hope justice will be served.

  2. They did the same this with the Galle face Xmas tree fiasco, presented half truths to make news and cast shadows on people they didn’t like. Shame on you news first

  3. Most of the coverage on NEWS FIRST ARE
    1. CBSL BOND
    2. GOOGLE BALLOON
    3. WILD ELEPHANTS ATTACKING VILLAGES
    4.STREET DEMONSTRATIONS
    5. STRIKES
    swarnavahini is more balanced and is worth watching

  4. Read me,
    How much Muhunthan paid you to published this. News first is not innocent and anyone with a little bit of brain understand that. But you were so low to bring an alcohol reference to explain Lanka bell. You could have used their poor service quality instead. I know that you are also running a business like news first. Don’t try to fool us because.
    If you need more info on Muhunthan the “Saint”, please interview Sanjeewa W.

  5. Newsfirst why you guys are destroying sri Lankans Feature. They are saying it’s clearly for testing purpose. If the google confortable working Chamath Palihapitiya, I don’t see any harm Chamath Palihapitiya forming company in Sri Lanka facilitation project to carry on.

  6. Google loon was and will be a commercial privately owned venture. Government and Mr Canagey shouldn’t have used that to score some political points for their stupid free wifi election promise. That is the root cause of all these controversy. Google Loon has nothing to do with wifi and it is not free.

  7. The same colombo centric, anti national sections who used to believe every lie propagated by Sirasa against the Rajapakshe government – even when the country was at war, are now complaining about Sirasa. How entertaining. Get me some pop corns.

  8. The idiotic government tried to fool the masses by pretending they approached Google for the Loon project with the intention of fulfilling their free wifi pledge. Only now they are acknowledging that Rama who has an intention of becoming a trans national telco has approached the government and had chosen Google Loon as it’s communication infrastructure.

    Rama should be welcomed to the country but the idiotic government should be confronted for trying to gain political mileage out of a private venture and fooling masses with stupid election promises.

  9. 1. Sri Lanka dose have unregulated frequencies (as I know) which Google can easily use rather fighting for this 700MHz for testing purposes.
    2. Why Google could not partner up with a telecommunication provider that already have licensed frequencies with them like Dialog or Mobitel. Why Rama?
    3. As highlighted, frequencies are sold in an auction( It is the stranded procedure for any country and it is known by any one on the related field). So Rama, Government and Google not knew that they would not get the required spectrum unless they won it on the auction? So why minister was so hyped in the first place?

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