Behind the scenes: Project Loon in Sri Lanka

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A few weeks back, it was announced Google would be bringing Project Loon to Sri Lanka. Partnering with ICTA, Google would provide balloons that would help bring affordable internet to everyone in Sri Lanka. It’s an incredible initiative, but there were serious questions and misconceptions on how it would be implemented in Sri Lanka.

To get answers, we met ICTA CEO, Mr. Muhunthan Canagey. Read on and find out exactly how Project Loon will be implemented in Sri Lanka.

The secrecy

Prior to the official announcement, no one outside ICTA had known that Project Loon was coming to Sri Lanka. Project Loon is no small task. It requires the cooperation of many different parties. Both within the government and the private sector. So why was an initiative like this launched in Sri Lanka with such secrecy?

Muhunthan’s answer was, that there was no such requirement by the ICTA until an MoU had been signed and a basic operational framework had been built.

muhunthan

The inter-ministerial committee appointed by cabinet, will be responsible in delivering the necessary legal directives to push the project forward. As such, the necessary parties will be involved in the project in the coming days.

Why announce it at Temple Trees?

The choice of venue for the launch event: Temple Trees, was questionable to say the least. Temple Trees as everyone knows is the official residence of the Prime Minister. The choice becomes even more questionable when you remember that it was held during the middle of the election. There was no requirement that the event be held at Temple Trees specifically either. So why was the Project Loon announcement held at Temple Trees?

The answer to that was due costs. ICTA could have made the announcement at BMICH. However, this would’ve apparently given them a bill close to a million rupees. Temple Trees on the other hand was significantly cheaper.

Is the service going to be free ?

The biggest question regarding Project Loon was how much will it cost? There was wild speculation that we would enjoy free unlimited internet. However, later we learned that Google aims to take a percentage of the revenue telcos earn from the service. The exact percentage was never revealed.

According to Muhunthan, the government will be providing limited Internet free of charge for every citizen in every part of Sri Lanka. “It is the government’s objective and internet being a citizens right. However there won’t be unlimited internet free of charge,” said Muhunthan.

As such, the ICTA will enter joint negotiations will all telcos in Sri Lanka in the near future. The goal of these negotiations will be to build an economic framework across the market. This is where the pricing models will be set.

However, we don’t have to worry says Muhunthan. While ICTA will consider the interests of citizens and the telcos, it’s main goal is to deliver affordable internet to all. “You could see a very affordable Internet service, with proper value for money in terms of speeds and capacity for the right price,” said Muhunthan. In other words, you won’t end up paying more for your connection and could even see a proper upgrade.

Speaking of speeds, with Project Loon consumers can get downloads speeds of up to 10Mbps. This was confirmed by Mike Cassidy, Vice President & Project Leader of Project Loon at the launch event.

The cost of maintaining balloons

The current plan for Project Loon states that 13 balloons will be used to cover Sri Lanka. If you refer to the video below you can see that managing these balloons is a complex and costly task.

A mission control center needs to be setup. This is 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.

So where will the funding to initiate and keep this project running come from? Muhunthan told us that the exact details can’t be revealed at this time. That’s due to the terms of the memorandum of understanding signed with Google and the lack of a Right To Information Act in the country.

However, he assured us that not a cent of public money was being 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 according to him, is proof that large amounts of public funds aren’t being spent on the project.

The devices

As per our research, Project Loon’s balloons send 4G LTE signals down to uncovered rural areas. Once these signals are received by a special antenna, you get internet access as WiFi. These antennae can be easily attached either to the side of a building or directly to smartphones.

Photo credits: gsmnation
Photo credits: gsmnation

However, the issue with that is smartphone penetration in Sri Lanka is at a meager 10%. According to the latest public data, the average income of a rural person was Rs 24, 079. When you’re earning that much, it’s unlikely you’ll be having even a budget smartphone.

Additionally, a budget PC costs approximately Rs 35,000. That’s without the monitor, keyboard or a LTE router! So even if the Project Loon antennae were attached to buildings, it’s still useless. As we can see, there is a massive device barrier to implementing Project Loon here in Sri Lanka.

Muhunthan acknowledged this issue and said ICTA does have an answer to it. That answer is, ICTA’s one million tablet strategy. Currently we can’t talk about the details but the idea is to put tablets in the hands of everyone in Sri Lanka with pre-loaded internet. These tablets will be given out as he quotes, “at an unimaginable price.”

The timeline

According to official reports, it’s been stated that Project Loon will be fully operational by 2016. However, we have yet to know exactly when in 2016. Some say early 2016, others by the end of 2016.

According to Muhunthan, currently we are in the discussion stage. By end of 2015 all required tests will be completed. Provided there are no setbacks, the project will be finished by 21st March 2016.

The spectrum

According to Mike Cassidy’s presentation, Project Loon balloons aim to use the 700MHz frequency. At this frequency, each balloon can cover a 5000 square kilometers. If they try using a higher frequency such as 2500MHz, then the coverage area drops significantly.

So it makes sense to use the 700 MHz frequency. However, there’s only one problem. In Sri Lanka, the 700 MHz frequency is used by the television stations! Muhunthan told us that, ICTA will work jointly and closely with the relevant authorities in this case the TRCSL and the media ministry on the solution is to move the television stations to a digital broadcasting platform. However for such working the inter-ministerial committee set up by the cabinet under the ICTA act will give the necessary directives for such working.

He also emphasized that ICTA is an enabler and facilitator of such projects and apex ICT policymaking body for ICT in country under the act. However the Spectrum and licensing issuing authority is the TRCSL and ICTA will be working closely with the TRCSL on the matter relating to spectrum and licensing, and with the media ministry on the Digitisation of broadcast. Muhunthan said professionalism and the law should always be upheld.

He told us there are plans currently being executed to make this happen. This would improve broadcast quality and by extension free up the required spectrum for Project Loon.

There you have it

That’s everything we know about how Project Loon will be implemented in Sri Lanka. What are your thoughts on the plans to implement Project Loon in SL? Let us know in the comments below.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Well lot of “if”s.

    “That’s due to the terms of the memorandum of understanding signed with Google and the lack of a Right To Information Act in the country.”

    If the terms prohibits revealing information, no idea how a act would change that. Currently there is no restriction (other than those so called “terms of the MOU”, nothing prohibits the government from revealing information) to reveal these types of information (asked from a lawyer).

    ” limited Internet free of charge for every citizen in every part of Sri Lanka”

    I vehemently oppose this. Internet is not like healthcare or food or shelter and there are lot of people who don’t have them. I don’t want to pay someone else s internet bill. There is nothing “free” here . Either the government or the ISP has to pay for it. Since both of these entities don’t create wealth (both gets their money from the people) , then we would be the ones who pay the bill in the end. As a customer of a ISP, i want my ISP to improve their (shitty) service with any excess money they have (after they deduct their cost from the money I pay).

    Loon gives 10 Mbps for each 5000 sq. Kms. That is not much and 5000 sq.km. is a a vast area. In comparison Colombo district is just 700 sq.km. So if there are lot of connections, the speed will go down significantly. And most of Sri Lanka has some form of a internet coverage. So Loon will be most useful for places where normal 3G is not available.

  2. Would like to clarify AKA Statement on the speed. The project Loon will provide a minimum of 10 Mbps per user. Not 10 Mbps per 5000 sq km.

  3. Dear Canagey,

    I would like to know some info………. If we are receiving the signals to our devices in Wifi mode, is this service still being provided by our mobile network providers ( MNP ) or a different ISP like Sri Lanka Telecom ( SLT ), and if we pass the ” limit “, do we still pay the extra amount to the MNP ( Dialog, Mobitel, Etisalat etc ) or is it a different billing system ( like pay over the counter for SLT )……… I use mostly my mobile 3G network ( prepaid/ pay as you go- dont want to use the post paid ) for internet and have 2 issues- its expensive cause I use a LOT of data, and when im out- station/ off major city areas the 3G wont work. Therefore can I still use my ( Wifi only ) tablet device, and if so, if I pass this so called ” Limit “, how will the payment for the extra usage be made, and to whom

    Thanks

  4. Dear Mr.Canagey,
    thank you for taking interest on my comment.

    I may made my comment based on the ft article about the loon launch and the LTE bandwidths.

    According to that there will be 13 balloons (for the country) each covering 5000 sq. km. area. When the article said, it allows 10 Mbps of speed I assumed that was the whole bandwidth offered by each balloon.

    So if each user gets a 10 Mbps bandwidth, how many of such (simultaneous) users a single balloon can handle (allocating10 Mbps for each user)?

    http://www.ft.lk/article/451797/Sri-Lanka-creates-universal-internet-access-world-history-with-Google-Loon

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-UTRA#Frequency_bands_and_channel_bandwidths

  5. Why The secrecy? Because people speculate too much like above and have a prejudice idea on something before having solid information, words like “Experimental” “Pilot” are too much of words to be understood.

  6. Okay so I am way behind you, as I’ve only been to 24 cuiotrnes. I want this print because 1) I love photography and am constantly hungry to learn and appreciate good photography from the field 2) I heart Africa 2) Children make me happy 3) I love the colors in this photograph- so vibrant and alive 4) I love how the photo is taken at the child’s eye level, beautiful. Also, Steph is fabulously fun!!

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