Moment of truth for Sri Lankan internet | Sunday Observer

Moment of truth for Sri Lankan internet

A robust and meaningful growth in internet penetration, backed by productive users, can drive us forward
A robust and meaningful growth in internet penetration, backed by productive users, can drive us forward

According to the latest World Bank statistics, Sri Lanka ranks far ahead with most of the other South Asian countries in the field of mobile technology. Sri Lanka had 25,797,000 mobile cellular subscriptions in 2016. That means, each 100 people has 124 mobile phones. This is indeed a good sign for a developing country and we should be happy.

Yet, the internet penetration in Sri Lanka is poor when considered with other Asian countries. According to World Bank, we have only 892,184 fixed broadband subscriptions. That means, we have only 4.29 per 100 people. Our secure internet server level is also low – 6,400 in total.

Comparatively, Asia, with a current population of 4.2 billion, has 48.7 per cent internet users. It is estimated that now more than 4 billion people- half of the global population – use the internet.

Experiences

Many reasons are attributed for this gap. A few years back, Dr Hans Wijayasuriya speaking on this issue said, “It can be mainly attributed to consumers who do not perceive any marginal value that can be extracted from the internet’. His point remains valid even today.

Let us take a cue from our neighbour - India. With over 460 million internet users, India is the second largest internet market in Asia. By 2021, their projection is 636 million.

In spite of the large numbers, this figure represents only 26 percent of the population. But when you compare with 2010, when it was only 10%, it is a significant increase.

How did India succeed in penetration? To quote a classic example, around end-2010, India embarked on an ambitious project called ‘e-Bharat’ to connect 600,000 villages. This mass IT empowerment project had been undertaken under the National e-Governance Action Plan.

The project aimed at providing last mile, direct technology and Internet access to village entrepreneurs through over 100,000 multipurpose kiosks. The kiosks, were designed by a professional team picked from various technology companies.

They managed to provide services like e-Learning, e-Training, e- Teaching, e-Health, telemedicine, e- Farming, e-Tourism, e-Entertainment and e-Commerce. The project was a big success.

The Philippines is also another country which succeeded in Internet penetration. Their current internet usage is 56 per cent of the population. One of the projects introduced by their Government was called ‘K-AgriNet.’ It was meant for the maintenance and updating of databases and knowledge networks. It connected all Farmers Information and Technology Service (FITS) centres nationwide. The managers of FITS received desktop publishing equipment and computer accessories, digital camera, and cellular telephones. With these equipment and inter connectivity, the delivery and access of information and technologies became fast, enhanced and modernized. It was also a success story.

Future

All these happenings elsewhere should make us question, isn’t it time that our Telecom authorities begin a process of developing an integrated policy for greater penetration of Internet services?

Experts think we need to develop more local contents in native languages, among other things, to make internet penetration effective and its use meaningful, appealing and attractive.

However, there remains a concern over the productive use of the internet. In most cases, we don’t see people gaining knowledge and getting involved with educating themselves with access to internet. Rather, we find that most of the users remain busy indulging in entertainment - using platforms like Facebook, YouTube.

While using internet, people go for a diverse array of uses - from reading email to posting an update on social media, checking into a work meeting, enjoying a favourite song or navigating many sites to get the latest news and/or productive information depending on one’s choice. Hence, a robust and meaningful growth in internet penetration, backed by productive users, can drive us forward to be in the big bracket of leading countries with a higher rate of literacy, business and educational talents.

Development

Sri Lanka also has an urgent need and the opportunity to improve e-governance and the welfare of its rural population through internet-enabled re-engineering of government processes and by engaging the private sector in the provision of innovative information technologies.

As the first step, our Telecom experts should prepare a consultation paper on “Accelerating Growth of Internet and Broadband Penetration”, aiming at soliciting the views of stakeholders on the various policy initiatives, regulatory actions and steps required to accelerate the growth and penetration of these services.

The paper should review the current state of Internet in the country, and investigate what ingredients have to be tackled if we are to achieve a desirable growth and greater penetration, e.g., quality infrastructure, affordable access devices and local content.

The paper can draw upon examples of successes and studies of some Asian countries and include the various technical options available for providing internet services. Based on these recommendations, policy measures could be taken by the Government.

If properly implemented, the use of internet will reap many benefits. Firstly, it will make possible for a reduction in cost and increase in access to public services by citizens and businesses across the country. Secondly, it can re-orient the government service from a traditional command and control focus on inputs to output-based “meeting citizen needs” through process re-engineering and overcome failures. Thirdly, it can improve the decision-making ability of farmers and rural suppliers through timely access to market prices; and finally, it can deploy electronic networking infrastructure for technology-enabled economic growth and social equity.

However, to grow exponentially in Sri Lanka, Internet would need to break two major barriers.One is the barrier of solving technical issues related to speed and connectivity.

This is the biggest reason for users not spending more time online. Secondly, the barrier of creating a more ‘persuasive’ relevance of Internet in people’s minds and lives rather than it being restricted to entertainment and work domain.

This poses a challenge for website providers who need to convert net users into net consumers and net students.

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