Sri Lanka as a country has been doing quite well in the telecom sector in the past few years. According to the International Telecommunications Union, Sri Lanka was the cheapest for mobile cellular services in the Asia Pacific region for 2016. In the same year, the island was also ranked at 35 for post-paid computer-based mobile broadband and 43 for pre-paid handset-based mobile broadband. But that is not to say everything is perfect.
The night time data conundrum
Consumers have long requested for better internet packages in Sri Lanka. Specifically, ones that do not leave lots of unused night-time data. One of the biggest complaints has been that users are left with unconsumed data every month. Night time data or more accurately off-peak data is demarcated from 12.00 AM to 8.00 AM. But the problem is that much of the internet needs fall during the 8.00 AM – 12.00 AM timeframe.
The issue is further amplified where data consumption has risen owing to the lockdowns. As such, data available for peak hours would usually be fully consumed before the allocated month is over. So, the question is why users cannot utilise those off-peak hour data during peak hours. If users already pay for that data then surely telecom operators should be able to let users decide how the data is consumed, right? The answer is not as straightforward as you expect.
Night time data is actually free?
According to Oshada Senanayake, Director General at the Telecommunications Regulations Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL), users only pay for internet data during peak hours. “The night time data component is offered based on the low utilization of networks on off peak time segments and is not charged for by service providers”, mentions Oshada.
In other words, internet data is not segmented according to peak and off peak blocks as many thought. Rather, what has been offered as night time data is actually bonus data. For example, assume you have subscribed to Dialog’s LKR 2,900 package. You are paying 2,900 for 65GB worth data. The additional 65GB is a bonus and you are not paying for that portion.
It is essentially a communication problem
The real problem is not about data restrictions. Rather, its improper communication. Internet data packages are often marketed at a certain price with total available data. Naturally, consumers assume prices are for total data and that its segmented based on peak and off-peak times. The messaging has been such that consumers were under the impression they were paying for the total data available. Thereby, “if I’m paying for all that data, then why can’t use them whenever I want?” becomes a valid concern given the perception inculcated within consumers.
Ideally, the telcos should clearly specify how the data is offered for consumers. The lapses in proper communication has only led to confusion. Fortunately, it looks like the telcos are making amends in terms of communication. By now, selfcare apps across different telecom operators have marked available data as “anytime data” and “night time bonus/free data”. However, it might be difficult to take the existing perspective away from consumers regarding peak and off-peak data.
Can’t telcos make internet packages anytime data exclusive?
But why can’t telcos give the off peak data during peak hours? If that data is already available for a package, then telcos could surely offer that as anytime data, couldn’t they? After all, this would help consumers manage their data usage better without having to rely on add-on data during peak hours. For instance, take the same Dialog WiFi package example; If users had access to that 65 GB night time data during daytime, it would be much easier to manage data consumption needs.
Unfortunately, this might be challenging for telcos. Particularly during this period. Dr. Amila Kanakanamge, Director at Mobitel shared that “all networks including Mobitel is experiencing heavy data throughputs” these days. He further stated that offering current data packages exclusively as anytime data (peak+off peak data) “would mean more resources and investment into the network and this is not the right time for this.”
Technically, an anytime data only package would mean removing the
off peak bonus data. So it’s highly unlikely that bonus data portions will be converted to anytime. In fact, all telco providers recently released a joint statement mentioning this very point.
Understandably, consumers might not share the same sentiment. The industry spent years marketing internet packages in such a way that consumers were led to believe internet data was separated as night time and day time blocks. Users might not have been paying for off peak data all this time. But there were many who assumed that they were paying for data every month that does not end up getting consumed.
Are there capacity issues?
This leads to the next question. Are there capacity issues owing to the COVID-19 situation? Globally, internet services have already taken measures to reduce the strain on internet traffic. By mid-March Netflix reduced its bitrates in Europe aiming to reduce network traffic by 25% in Europe. YouTube followed suit by setting default quality at 480p resolution.
After all, the entertainment segment has seen significant spikes in the past 2 months among internet services. Netflix alone has recorded 183 million subscribers so far. Disney Plus crossed 50 million subscribers by early April. Clearly, internet capacity is a global challenge.
It is unclear whether Sri Lanka might come to a situation where streaming resolutions would be restricted like in Europe. But Oshada views the situation as a “good problem of digitalization to have in terms of a shift of varied consumer segments to consume more data in terms of work as well as lifestyle activities”. Furthermore, Oshada also mentioned that discussions are already underway with regards to capacity planning and expansion strategies.
Sharing Mobitel’s perspective, Amila pointed out, “we (Mobitel) started an emergency upgrade to the network to accommodate high data throughput and have our network teams standby around the clock to maintain high quality data and voice services.”
Speaking of capacity, what about unlimited data? Is there a place for the service in Sri Lanka? As Oshada puts it, “unlimited internet packages are already on offer by certain providers, but we have intimated the need to tailor new packages that would be unlimited in nature”. Additionally, any unlimited data package would come in the form of a premium offering. This is because unlimited data is an expensive undertaking, one that might not be ready for mass adoption in Sri Lanka.
Unlimited packages have been introduced in the form of selective measures such as unlimited YouTube usage. Currently, all 3 main telecom operators offer unlimited YouTube packages at 360p resolution. Here again, we see a lapse in telco operator communications. Users will only notice the 360p resolution restriction in fine print. If you came across any of the following posts, you would not assume the offering is at 360p quality.
Locally, YouTube records over 2.5 million unique daily visitors. Thereby, providing unlimited YouTube packages at HD quality might not be practically possible. But a clear communication from the operators helps avoid consumer confusion.
Better communication, better clarity
Ultimately, the customer is the critical component of the equation. Part of the reason why so many requested for an anytime data only option is to do with the surge in recent data consumption. Chances are that your consumption is at a level where you are forced to rely on add-on data.
As users, we could explore cutting back on non-essential internet services like Netflix to manage our usage. But then again, the internet has become essential for everything amidst this pandemic. Even Zoom, which many of us have come to rely on, consumes a lot of data. So, cutting on own usage is a demanding ask for many consumers. Understandably, having access to your night time data during the day would ease things. But as things stand, its challenging in the present scenario.
Even as operators adjust messaging to demarcate anytime/bonus data offerings, it might take time for consumers to adjust their perceptions accordingly. “It’s fair that consumers comprehend that the night time data is literally a portion of paid data bundle with an assumption usage is restricted by the night time allocation”, says Oshada. Nevertheless, the updated communications regarding internet data packages is a welcome change.
All in all, it is a step in the right direction as data consumption has risen significantly high in recent times. Current offers such as unlimited YouTube streaming, free access to e-learning platforms, and free social media messaging translate to meaningful value additions for customers. Better communication on service offering would only add clarity to all stakeholders.