Rama and its role in Sri Lanka’s digital story

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In the 1950’s, many countries such as Jamaica and Singapore were on the verge of a transformation. Countries like Singapore decided to invest heavily in infrastructure and human capital, but countries like Jamaica chose not to. Today, we are seeing the results of those investments, Singapore is a global economic powerhouse and Jamaica is not. Today Sri Lanka is in the same place as Jamaica and Singapore were in the 1950’s. These were the words of Chamath Palihapitiya, the founder of Rama Corporation to everyone at a recently held press conference.

The panel at the press conference speaking on Rama and Sri Lanka's Digital Story
The panel at the press conference

This press conference was all about Sri Lanka’s Digital Story. This digital story began with the arrival of Google’s Project Loon and now has a number of initiatives under its name, which the government is supporting by allocating Rs. 10bn to ensure their success. However, it was clear to everyone that the focus of this press conference was Rama. The latest venture was undertaken by Chamath Palihapitiya to change the world.

Now if you’re in the tech industry, Chamath is a person that needs no introduction. The iconic venture capitalist who was born in Sri Lanka raised in Canada and went on to spending much of his life working in Silicon Valley. In 2004, he became AOL’s head of the instant messaging division and then joined Facebook a year later when it was a young startup. In 2011, he left Facebook to start his own fund, known today as Social Capital. Today he’s the CEO of Social Capital and the owner of the NBA Golden State Warriors.

So what is Rama?

Rama, a quasi-public company controlled by Social Capital and the Sri Lankan government. The goal of Rama is simple: to bring quality internet access to the underserved people of the world. As Jay Zaveri, a partner at Social Capital pointed out: simply providing internet connections is not enough. A 10% increase in quality mobile data penetration can result in 1.2% GDP growth, according to the GSMA. At the same time, this quality data connection needs to be affordable. This is the mission of Rama.

“It is beyond the shadow of a doubt, that when you give people internet access, GDP goes up, literacy goes up, gender equality goes up, violence goes down” – Chamath Palihapitiya.

So how does Rama aim to provide quality internet connections at affordable prices? By improving the quality of the infrastructure telecom operators have in place. It all starts with technologies that can provide great signal strength and easily scale to accommodate millions of new users. This is where technologies such as a Google’s Project Loon come into the picture.

The Project Loon balloon is but one component of Rama
Photo credits: Project Loon

These technologies are the hardware side of Rama, which will cover all of Sri Lanka and connect it to the Internet. In fact, it’s thanks to the efforts of Chamath and Rama that Google decided to bring the Loon balloons to Sri Lanka in the first place.

The other side of Rama is the software. This is where a company called LotusFlare comes into play. Rama will provide software from LotusFlare to telcos. This software will allow telcos to not only connect to the Loon balloons but also help provide better consumer experiences. One such software to help consumers get a better experience with their data connections is DataEye, which you can download now from the Play Store.

Essentially, Rama is the neutral intermediary that allows telcos to access to the Loon balloons and provides the software to handle billing with other services. This means you will still pay the telcos for your data but the telcos will have to pay an undisclosed fee to Rama.

But this is just phase one: getting cellular data infrastructure for the underserved people of Sri Lanka. Speaking at the press conference, Jay shared with us that Rama has identified that there are 8.7 million people in Sri Lanka with poor internet access. Rama’s plan is to offer these people LTE coverage at 5 – 10 cents per Gigabyte. According to Rama’s data, 80% of the underserved people can afford such a connection. Rama’s goal is to provide at least 3.6 million people with affordable quality internet connections.

Phase two is a bit more ambitious. This is about building the cellular network of the future. Today, we consume 3.4 Exabytes of data on mobile each month. In 5 – 10 years, we could be consuming 3,400 Exabytes of data per month. This is a massive increase in data consumption and the telcos don’t have a solution as to how they can accommodate this increase. Rama says that they do.

In addition to using technologies such as Google’s Project Loon, Rama is building a small base station the size of a router that can be installed in homes.  These base stations would then reduce the strain on the big cell towers we use today. The cell towers would then offer only 5% – 10% of LTE coverage with the mini base stations providing the rest of the coverage. This is the ambitious phase two of Rama.

Where is Rama today?

Today Rama is a company that’s owned Social Capital and the government of Sri Lanka. Why is the government involved? At the press conference, Muhunthan gave us an answer to this question. Traditionally, governments have only been selling spectrum to businesses. By becoming a partner, the government hopes to create value. As the value of the business increases, the government hopes to increase its own value. The other reason is that the government hopes to serve people who haven’t been served and make Sri Lanka the first country in the world with 100% coverage.

However, it will be a while before we see Rama in action. Currently, the testing for each component that plays a role in phase one is underway. The purpose of these tests is to identify clearly what are the costs incurred in bringing Rama to the market. Once the tests have been concluded, only then will agreements be signed and the exact costs of Rama are revealed.

The initial tests of bringing the Project Loon balloons to Sri Lanka and positioning them have concluded. According to Chamath, this phase was very successful. The next set of tests, which are currently underway is to ensure devices can now connect properly to these balloons and browse the internet. These tests are being conducted with the participation of Dialog and Mobitel. How much time will these tests take? It all depends on how quickly certain technical milestones are hit. But a worst case scenario would be one year before the initial rollout begins.

Chamath Palihapitiya and Hon. Minister Harin Fernando after meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena regarding Rama
Chamath Palihapitiya and Hon. Minister Harin Fernando after meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena regarding Rama (Image credits: Chamath Palihapitiya)

As the tests take place, we will also hear a few announcements over the next few months regarding Rama’s management. Chamath shared with us that they’ve recruited a talented individual to run Rama in Sri Lanka but they’re not ready to reveal who at this time. Over time, Chamath says that they want to bring more innovations under the Social Capital umbrella to Sri Lanka.

This is because, in the US, there is just too much bureaucracy and regulations. Should the Sri Lankan government show a keen interest in investing in human capital, then Chamath says they would gladly open an office in Sri Lanka. But right now, they want to see how the business climate and political climate responds to changes like Rama.

Reactions to Rama

Across the world, the reaction to Rama and the Loon initiative coming to Sri Lanka has been very positive. Hon. Minister Harin Fernando mentioned that when he introduced himself as a Sri Lankan while he was abroad, a woman from Texas asked, “Is that the balloon country?” Similarly, in Silicon Valley, the news has captured many imaginations. People in the Valley have asked Chamath, “Why did you pick Sri Lanka?” To which the usual reply he gives is that he didn’t Sri Lanka picked them.

Meanwhile, what do the telcos in Sri Lanka think of Rama? Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya, Group CEO of Dialog said at the press conference that Dialog would be looking at the test results and decide on what its next move will be. Dileepa Wijesundara, Group CEO of SLT said that they are committed to the tests and hope it would be an advantage to building ICT infrastructure in the country. Representatives from the other telcos were not present at the press conference.

Yet, Rama’s biggest challenge today is miscommunication. At the press conference, Chamath was very vocal in saying that the biggest challenge was simply communicating the facts accurately to the people. The blame for this was placed on poorly written reports. These reports he says hinders progress as they misinterpret the technology and miss the point of it by overanalyzing the business points.

Our thoughts on Rama

Rama is a great project and one that could change the face of Sri Lanka for the better. It uses some great technology and is led by some well-renowned people.  But Rama is just one part of Sri Lanka’s digital story. Hon. Minister Harin Fernando mentioned that by the end of the year, Sri Lanka will be hosting a digital summit. Organized by the Government of Sri Lanka, this conference is planned to celebrate all of Sri Lanka’s digital achievements and will see many prominent speakers from Silicon Valley.

However, Rama’s many components are still in its testing phase. Furthermore, we have already passed the deadline which was set for Loon internet to be operational in Sri Lanka. Additionally, there are some serious questions about how it’ll work as a business. But for now, we’ll give Rama the benefit of the doubt. Despite having passed the deadline, we are actually seeing progress. We are seeing some great technologies coming to Sri Lanka and try to change our lives for the better. So we earnestly hope that by the end of the year, the digital summit does happen and our questions about Rama will be answered, putting all doubts to rest.

What are your thoughts on Rama? Do you think it’s an initiative that can help Sri Lanka? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

4 COMMENTS

  1. Loon should be controlled by a Government Entities. Not a private one. Not even through joint ventures. In that case, ICTA should own 60% of the RAMA in Sri Lanka. So many shady corners the Mugunthan’s and Harin’s won’t tell. Also it’s a shame the ICTA is not equipped to do this and facilitate that they need to run behind another.

  2. Remember how Facebook tried to colonize Indian Internet disguised as “Free Internet” and “Free Basics” and the whole debate about Net Neutrality? This RAMA (whatever this means) is looking very suspicious to me, an Internet aware techie with common sense. I remain a skeptic. Back in the day, colonizers came for tea, spices and gems. Now, the Neo-Colonizers come for our cloud, our Internet, and our networks. DO NOT allow them.

  3. The truth behind this scenario is that Sri Lankan ISP companies don’t like this project to be succeeded since they are not be able to make profits by providing internet.This loon project helps the poor students a lot since they can have free internet.
    I really wanna make a humble request from all the parties and companies who are involved in project loon. That is, please do not be selfish and don’t jeopardise the effort of google and make our country a better place in the future at least.
    Otherwise we all be seen by other countries as ‘frogs’ in the well in the future.

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