2009 March

LIRNEasia is organizing its fourth CPRsouth conference, in Negombo, Sri Lanka from 7-8 December 2009. Themed ‘Speaking Truth to Power’, the conference aims to provide a forum for senior, junior and mid-career scholars to meet face-to-face and exchange ideas, establish networking opportunities and improve the quality of their scholarly work, in order to facilitate the long-term objective of fostering the next generation of active scholars and in-situ experts capable of contributing to ICT policy and regulatory reform in the region. Please check the Call for Abstracts and Call for Young Scholar Applications to see how you may participate at this event. Visit the CPRsouth4 conference page for more information. Please mail info[at]cprsouth[dot]org for any queries.
Multiple dishes is a common sight at many Nenasalas – the ‘telecentres’ set up under the e-Sri Lanka program, funded by the World Bank. Some of them are huge – with diameters little less than 2m. Having not done a design recently, I cannot tell the prices offhand, but I do know they are expensive – one such dish (with equipment) costs few times more than the aggregate cost of the PCs and peripherals in the centre. Why a telecenter is equipped with multiple dishes? The reason is, sadly, poor planning.
Not many are familiar with ‘line rooms’ in Sri Lanka’s estates. Fewer have ever visited one. These are the dwellings of the labourers – descendants of the migrants brought here by British planters from in nearby Madras state in India staring from 1827 to work in estates for meager salaries under austere conditions. Human development conditions have significantly improved since then, but some of them still call a 4 m x 4 m room with a smaller kitchen ‘home’. Meet Parameshvari.
LIRNEasia plans to conduct its next round of Mobile Broadband Quality testing (in Colombo) on April 6-8, 2009. As a rule such tests are conducted unannounced, for obvious reasons, but this time we decided to make an exception by making the process open. We invite anybody who is interested to participate. If you can bring your own laptops/handsets you are free to test using any tool you wish and check the results differ from the outcome of AT-Tester. Four widely used packages – two from Dialog GSM and two from Mobitel will be tested.
Thalakumbura is 17 km off Hali-Ela, in Badulla District, Uva province – one of the least connected in Sri Lanka. Strictly speaking, the village, just 10 km from the famous ‘Bogoda Bridge’, is connected – not to one but three mobile networks. However, the signal strength is not adequate to carry out a continuous conversation except when at the second floor of the three storey temple building. (See photo) So the villagers’ frequent visits to temple may not be with strictly spiritual objectives. Despite this, more than 50% houses now have at least one mobile, confirms the chief incumbent priest.
On March 27th, 2009, the Lanka Software Foundation committed to handover the Sahana project to the Sahana Software Foundation, upon incorporation. The award winning software, developed in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, is now recognized as a leading disaster management software suite and has been deployed from the Philippines to Manhattan. In the course of the handing over ceremony I commented that Sahana exemplified a new kind of public good, that relied on funding and contributions from many sources, EXCEPT the government of the country it was developed in. In his brief comments, Hon Tissa Vitarana, Minister of Science and Technology of the Government of Sri Lanka, graciously conceded that the government has a lot of catching up to do. Now that the open source project is being spun off as a global public good to be maintained and developed by an international committee of disaster and open source professionals, there is not much point in giving Sahana money.
Denmark boasts the world’s most networked economy, putting it and its Nordic neighbors in a good position to rebound from the current global downturn, the World Economic Forum said on Thursday. Sweden ranked second in the annual WEF Networked Readiness Index. The United States placed third, Singapore fourth and Switzerland fifth among the 134 economies listed in the index. Poor states including Bangladesh, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Timor-Leste and Chad rated worst. Following are some highlights from the index: TOP 10 – Denmark, Sweden, United States, Singapore, Switzerland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Netherlands, Canada BOTTOM 10 – Nicaragua, Cambodia, Nepal, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Timor-Leste, Chad EMERGING ASIA – China ranks 46th; India 54th LATIN AMERICA/CARIBBEAN – Barbados 36th; Chile 39th; Puerto Rico 42nd; Jamaica 53rd; Costa Rica 56th; Brazil 59th SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA – Mauritius 51st; South Africa 52nd NORTHERN AFRICA – Tunisia 38th; Egypt 76th; Morocco 86th; Algeria 109th MIDDLE EAST – Israel 25th; United Arab Emirates 27th; Qatar 29th; Bahrain 37th; Saudi Arabia 40th; Jordan 44th; Oman 50th; Kuwait 57th.
As those who have followed the discussion on universal service fees on this blog know, universal service fees are usually charged from a company (actually the company collects the money from customers and gives it to the government). The payments go to dedicated fund, from which it is disbursed (or not, for the most part) to connect more people to the network. India has one of the highest universal service fees in the world–5% of total revenues. We were hopeful, after years of presenting evidence to the government, that this would be reduced (though our preference is for its complete phasing out). The reduction of the rate from 5% to 3% was almost done, but suddenly it has been halted due to Finance Ministry objections.
In less than five years since its launch Skype has grown to become the world’s largest carrier of international voice telephone traffic with Skype-to Skype minutes alone accounting for eight percent of the total. According to figures from TeleGeography, which tracks international telecommunications traffic statistics, Skype-to-Skype calling totalled an estimated 33 billion minutes in 2008, up from 22 billion in 2007. This figure does not include Skype-Out or Skype-In minutes between Skype and other networks. This traffic is included in VoIP which TeleGeography estimates amounted to 96 billion minutes, some 23 percent of the total. Traditional circuit switched phone calls accounted for the remaining 69 percent.
Much of LIRNEasia’s work is premised on the mobile serving as the pathway to the Internet us by those at the bottom of the pyramid. Our African colleague takes a slightly different position. We will restate our position with supporting evidence from the Teleuse @ BOP research in Cape Town in April. I am sure the differences in opinion will help us improve our analyses. But is this optimism justified?
And now, for something completely different! LIRNEasia research found that mobile phones are increasingly being used for entertainment. But we never thought of this! Wang held his iPhone as if he were holding a sandwich, then blew into the microphone at the bottom of the device. He controlled the vibrato by tilting the phone as he played “the Zelda tune” from a popular fantasy-action video game called The Legend of Zelda.
Last year, the Indian authorities relaxed their strictures on infrastructure sharing, allowing the sharing of active and passive infrastructure except spectrum. Now in more mature markets, there are moves to go even further. As growth stabilizes, governments and operators in emerging economies should start looking at this option. Two of the world’s largest cellphone operators, the Spanish company Telefónica and the British giant Vodafone, said Monday that they would share infrastructure in several European markets in an effort to cut costs and protect profit margins. The companies said in a statement that they had agreed to share networks in Britain, Germany, Ireland and Spain, and were in “detailed discussions” about doing so in the Czech Republic.
Since 2005, LIRNEasia has been critical of the very high amount (5%) charged from Indian telecom consumers through the operators and then left unspent in government accounts (approx. USD 4 billion at last count). Our criticisms were presented in multiple forms including a book chapter. We made them known to the leadership of the Department of Telecommunications in face-to-face conversations. Most recently, I discussed the harm caused by taxing poor people to purportedly serve poor people and then keeping the money unspent at a UNCTAD meeting on trade and regulation.
At the “multi-year expert meeting” on services, development and trade: the regulatory and institutional dimension, organized by UNCTAD in Geneva, there was rich discussion on the increasing importance of regulation in an environment in which services trade is assuming greater importance. As attention shifts to services trade (for example, the most important element of the proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement between India and Sri Lanka, is the services chapter), there is of necessity a need to start looking at regulatory restrictions on services trade. Tariffs do not apply to services, so the only barriers are opaque, arbitrary and discriminatory regulatory provisions. This has been well recognized in telecom, with the reference paper on regulation being one of the key contributions to liberalization made by the GATS. The issue being raised at the UNCTAD meeting was whether there was value in exploring the regulatory aspects of trade in other infrastructure services.
Old habits die hard. When you have been a member of a tiny Trotskyite left political party for the longer period of your life and seen the World Bank as your arch enemy, you may forget that you are on the same side now. This seems to be what happens to Sri Lanka’s Minister of Science and Technology, Prof. Tissa Vitharana, once in a while. His latest holler, as reported by ‘The Catalyst’ – the newsletter of the Information and Communication Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA), the apex body of ICTs that spearhead the e-Sri Lanka program, funded by the World Bank, goes as follows: “At a time when the ‘world funding bodies’ proposed the setting of Internet cafes in cities of Sri Lanka in a manner that would only cater only to the rich elite, President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided that Nenasalas or wisdom outlets should be setup instead island-wide to cater to the poor rural folk.
Two surveys of India’s telecom regulatory and policy environments conducted in 2006 and 2008 by LIRNEasia show a dramatic increase in the score for universal service policies since the policy changes effected in 2007. From being ranked lowest among six emerging Asian countries, India now has close to the highest score for universal service policy and implementation in the mobile subsector, the most dynamic and important of all. What is also noteworthy is that the 2006 score for universal service was the lowest among the six policy and regulatory dimensions that were assessed then. By 2008, that unenviable position had been passed to the dimension of management of scarce resources (spectrum). The increase in the USO score in the fixed subsector was 36 percent; and in the mobile sector 64 percent.