By: TRC, Sanath Siriwardena
The TRCSL had been able to achieve its preliminary targets of broadband within a period of time less than anticipated upon reflecting on the success of its initiative.
The quality of service and the rates being paid by the subscribers monthly for broadband services has been identified as two major items that require the attention of the TRCSL. Fixed broadband services associated with poor download speeds and high monthly rentals were recognized as barriers to the development of broadband in Sri Lanka. From the perspective of fixed broadband, little or no competition and lack of regulatory intervention would have been the main reason for this situation to arise in the country.
Speed is the key
Speed is the under current that drives broadband forward. Broadband would not have become so popular in the world if it is not powered with speed. Higher bandwidth capacities and support of multifunctional operations have contributed much towards the widespread of high speed broadband services in every corner of the world. Therefore, the aspect of speed which is a prerequisite for broadband development has to be looked in by the telecom regulators. Degraded broadband services would cause retardation in usage due to loss of confidence among users about its potentials. Having identified this situation the Sri Lankan regulator, TRCSL has taken timely measures to apprehend the QoS deterioration in broadband services through a strategic regulatory approach.
Fixed Vs Wireless broadband
In the Sri Lankan context three fixed wireless operators had to compete with the incumbent operator who is the owner of the copper network in broadband operations. The incumbent operator holds the ownership of the submarine cable landing stations which connects the country to the SEA-ME-WE cable systems physically in two locations. While fixed broadband operators use costly WiMAX (802.16d) in their operations, the incumbent used its copper plant to provide ADSL to its subscribers. Irrespective of the technology high price and poor quality have been observed right across in all services.
The rates of fixed broadband remained unchanged for a longer of time period until 2010 due to poor competitiveness prevailed in the country. This was mainly due to the technical and cost differences in technologies used in broadband operations. It is a well known fact that the market would never become competitive until the cost gap of network operations become narrower in technologies used in broadband operations. Who has the cost advantage in operations could control the market artificially, as long as the cost of operations remains high in other technologies due to various reasons. This dominancy enables a single operator to control everything from price to quality to suit its commercial interests. Simply, wireless operators, who use WiMAX, had failed to induce any competition in the market due uneven conditions of the playing field prevailed.
Entry of mobile broadband
However during this period Sri Lanka had entered in to an era of mobile broadband with the launch of 3G HSPA services. This situation has further deteriorated the fixed broadband market thus it had virtually come to a standstill. Strong competition in 3G HSPA caused price per GB to come down drastically within a short period of time with higher data transfer speeds. People who were on 512kbps had been able to experience data speed up to 3.6Mbps with the introduction of HSPA service in 2007. The initial cost spent on HSPA is substantially lower compared to costs being spent on fixed wireless broadband services.
However the availability of fixed broadband services is essentially needed for the growth of broadband. To fulfill demands set up by certain applications especially on the bandwidth, fixed services with acceptable QoS is needed at an affordable price. So the TRCSL had to face three challenges initially. That is to improve QoS, reduce prices and to increase competition in fixed broadband services.
As a strategic measure, the TRCSL began monitoring the quality of broadband services in late 2010. A unit was established especially for this purpose with sophisticated equipment to monitor Internet speeds of broadband services. Findings of this unit were publicized regularly for the knowledge of the public.
Subsequently, to allow other operators to improve their QoS, rates of the incumbent’s submarine cable landing station charges were also brought down through strategic regulatory mechanisms.
Gradual but momentous QoS improvement was recorded in fixed broadband operations soon after the TRCSL’s broadband benchmarking process. Operators started to compete for higher speeds and have taken all efforts to be at the top of the graphs published by the regulator regularly in its website. Sri Lankan broadband subscribers have realized the potentials of broadband that really packed with high speed, for the first time as a result of this action.
Operator sustainability is a paramount regulatory aspect
It is the considered view that no operator in this region would possibly deliver an unlimited broadband service to customers with an acceptable QoS unless the operator has unlimited network resources. Previously, service providers offered packages with the “unlimited” marketing tagline to attract customers but in fact provide very low speeds of data transfer. QoS improvements influenced operators to adopt traffic policies and to introduce new packages to the market with pre allocated data volumes to gain control on network resources instead of continuing with the so called unlimited packages. The TRCSL has foreseen the importance of introducing such traffic policies which is vital for the sustainable broadband operations, and persuaded operators to release volume based packages to the market. Actually this parameter would be one of the key parameters which differentiate broadband services from dedicated Internet leased circuits which is offered to customers at a premium rate.
However the introduction of volume based packages cannot be another scheme to restrict the Internet usage of customers. To prevent such triggering action, the TRCSL has introduced a smart mechanism to this market segment by creating competition among operators. As of today this mechanism had been able to alter not only the price per GB, but the bandwidth of fixed broadband services successfully to a greater capacity which exceeds 15Mbps in the downlink. Subsequently the entry level price has fallen approximately to rupees 1400 per month speeds up to 8Mbps. However packages with greater data volume capacities are relatively higher compared to regional countries. The TRCSL anticipates a price drop in packages with greater volume capacities as the market gets mature.
Next phase is ready
Having completed the phase one successfully, the TRCSL is now ready to deploy its phase two soon, focusing mainly on policies, standardization and broadband deployment plans to increase its penetration especially in underserved areas while encouraging investments directly in broadband deployment. Barriers which hinder the development of broadband have been identified and steps have been taken to overcome the same. This includes the removal of red tape and similar barriers which usually face by the operators in the process of deploying broadband services. In the next phase priority will be given to deploy high speed broadband services with greater bandwidth capacities which enable the use of bandwidth intensive programs without facing problems. The TRCSL will provide guidance and encourage operators to deploy fiber networks right up to the customer premises using alternative and cost effective methods. The TRCSL is expecting Sri Lanka’s first Fiber to the Home (FTTH) network to start its operations in Sri Lanka in 2012, which exceeds 25Mbps bandwidth.