Islandwide connectivity by 2023

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With regards to the initiative of the current Government of creating a technology-based society and digitally inclusive Sri Lanka, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) is in the process of establishing the project “Connect Sri Lanka” by 2023, The Sunday Morning Business learns. 

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Addressing the Charting Sri Lanka’s Economic Trajectory session at the Sri Lanka Investment Forum 2021, TRCSL Director General Oshada Senanayake stated that the TRCSL is currently looking at an aggressive drive of technology in Sri Lanka in order to ensure that the entire country, along with the rural areas, are completely improvised with 4G and fibre broadband coverage. 

“Through the ‘Connect Sri Lanka’ project, the Government has ensured that the connectivity infrastructure will be further expanded across all parts of Sri Lanka with regards to connectivity for everyone, in addition to the connectivity that we already have,” Senanayake highlighted.

Announcing the Budget 2021 last year, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, also the Finance Minister, stated that a sum of Rs. 15 billion will be invested from the Telecom Development Fund during the period 2021-2022 to develop the necessary requirements.

“This programme will expand the availability of mobile and fixed broadband services. It is planned to provide the required infrastructure including communication towers and fibre installations to telecom service providers to establish broadband services covering all the grama niladhari divisions of the island,” Premier Rajapaksa said. 

Subsequently, priority will be given to the utilisation of local labour and products in constructing and installing the communication towers and the related appliances, and in the provision of technical services. However, under this programme, identified state lands will be vested with the TRCSL to successfully implement communication tower installation in the country. 

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, technology consultant Asela Waidyalankara stated that right now it is absolutely critical for Sri Lanka to have universal coverage with equal internet access for everyone at an affordable price due to the shift into the digital era.

“Connect Sri Lanka is a timely initiative, especially given the situation where the country is in its third lockdown in which a lot of activities – especially retail, medicine, and education – have shifted online. However, education has been disrupted the most due to low internet connectivity in the rural areas of the country,” Waidyalankara said. 

Explaining this, he said that connectivity is low in rural places, as telcos are discouraged to set up towers due to low population density that would result in low return on investment (ROI) for establishing costly towers. 

“From a commercial balance sheet point of view, telcos would prefer to establish towers in urban areas to generate ROI. Hence, the TRCSL should have meaningful interventions with telcos to make islandwide internet connectivity a priority,” he highlighted. 

As of January 2021, the internet penetration in Sri Lanka was 50%. According to Waidyalankara, it is expected to grow further, as individuals right now are becoming entrepreneurs who generate income via online platforms, which was completely unheard of 20 years ago. 

Hence, emphasising the importance of connectivity, he said that now, digital data connectivity a utility, similar to water and electricity. “The TRCSL, as a regulatory measure, should prioritise and focus on islandwide connectivity. They are now a utility provider, and data connectivity is no longer a luxury. It is absolutely essential, because if we don’t have this, we don’t have a future,” Waidyalankara stressed. 

Meanwhile, addressing the Investment Forum 2021, TRCSL Director General Senanayake said also that the tower infrastructure that has been manufactured in Sri Lanka has already triggered a new technological industry in the country.

Explaining this, Senanayake stated: “We are looking at a very unique tower-sharing model while also ensuring minimum impact on the environment. As much as we roll out these plans, we are ensuring a sustainable approach to cover the whole of Sri Lanka, with the connectivity required.”

Adding, he also said that the TRCSL is also in the process of establishing five technoparks in Sri Lanka, which will also be connected with a resilient fibre networking system. 

“We are proud to say that we not only look at the business perspective but also at our obligation to ensure that connectivity is provided for the education sector of the next generation.

“Hence, we will ensure that all of the 10,000-plus schools in Sri Lanka will also be connected with fibre technology with a vision of ensuring a smart classroom environment in the near future,” Senanayake said.

In the meantime, the TRCSL is also in the process of implementing a number portability facility that is expected to come into effect by the end of the year in order to enable customers to retain their telephone numbers while changing service providers. 

The initial plan was to establish this facility by May-June, but with the prevailing Covid-19 situation in the country, it has been delayed until the end of this year. Speaking to us in May, Senanayake said that “due to Covid-19 barriers, implementation has been delayed towards the end of this year. We just have to get the legal framework done in accordance with the regulations required for the number portability facility implementation”.

Adding to that, he said that despite lockdowns and other barriers in Sri Lanka, the plan is to release it as soon as possible to the market. “Amidst these barriers, we have made progress, for example, we were able to finish the public consultation phase,” he added. 

Accordingly, the public consultation paper, which is a formality arrangement, was released in January. The TRCSL started receiving feedback for it from mid-February onwards.

In January, Senanayake told us that the necessary technical work was being done at the time while the interconnection of rate methods and systems was pending completion.

“This is something the consumers have wanted for years. So it’s better late than never because all other countries have gone forward with these long years ago. This will enable a lot more autonomy to decide what they want, irrespective of the service provider. With this, consumers can switch to any service provider at any moment,” he added.

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