2014 October


We’ve had too many disasters. The tsunami, the LTTE, Nandikadal. And now Koslanda. After the tsunami we asked what could be done to avoid a repeat. We found answers.
LIRNEasia seeks to foster evidence-based reform. The evidence, in the countries we work in, points to most of the needed actions having to do with reforming the state, by getting it to pull back from its current role of stifling decentralized innovation. This has caused many on the unthinking “left” plying their trade in the non-profit sector to look at us with suspicion, if not outright hostility. But they do not see that a great deal of what we do is about regulation in various forms. If there were active standard bearers of conventional right-wing thinking in our region, I am sure they would be throwing rocks at us too.
A report from the Innovation and Information Technology Foundation has been used as the basis for a good report in the Daily Star on the situation in the worst offender, Bangladesh. Of course, it did not hurt that they sought our comments. Our comments were based on the findings of the Systematic Review we completed on the benefits of mobile phones. For instance, in Bangladesh, the telecom infrastructure providers pay 55 percent taxes to import capital equipment and 24 percent for optical fibre cable. Mobile handsets are slapped with 21 percent duty when they enter the country.
The development of knowledge workers is obviously important for the emergence of inclusive knowledge economies. We have been working on this, but it has not been front and center of our public communication. This will change in the next little while. The 2015 Budget Speech of the Government of Sri Lanka placed its central emphasis on the development of human resources, as befits a country moving into middle-income status. But the policy proposals require some focus.
Over-the-top players like WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype will cost mobile operators an estimated $14 billion in lost revenues this year. And it will be 26% more from 2013, according to a study of Juniper Research. It has detected that in a number of markets the mobile voice revenues had fallen bellow 60% of their value five years’ ago. The combination of IM, VoIP and social media are blamed for not only in lost revenues but adding costs due to the scale of signaling traffic. It suggests the operators to optimize their networks.
The affordability of broadband is something many people have been dabbling with. In 2013 the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) released a report with composite index that attempts to rank economies based on the affordability of the Internet. Here’s another take on the same, from the World Economic Forum. It is also interesting to note that there are 14 countries where the monthly price of broadband is more than 100% of the average monthly income. Moreover, there are 39 countries with an estimated aggregated population of more than 840 million people that have broadband prices higher than 5% of monthly income for all deciles…  
Taking research to policy is our thing; social science is a means to that, not an end. Yet, we cannot help but think of how weak an instrument social science has become, especially in South Asia. Here is something I wrote in relation to some internal discussions a few months back: Expressed demand for social science may be difficult to demonstrate, but there can be little doubt that social science is critically important for informed policy making and implementation. As evidence-based policy making receives greater acceptance, demand will increase for high-quality social science graduates or for repurposing of graduates from other fields. .
The politicians of China, Japan, South Korea and Viet Nam have locked horn over the maritime rights in South China Sea. Simultaneously, the telecoms carriers of these countries have been laying optical fiber cables underneath the same disputed water to connect each other. Dubbed as “Asia Pacific Gateway” or APG, this cable lands at Tanah Merah (Singapore), Kuantan (Malaysia), Songkhla (Thailand), Da Nang (Vietnam), Tseung Kwan O (Hong Kong), Toucheng (Taiwan), Nanhui and Chongming (mainland China), Busan (South Korea), and Shima and Maruyama (Japan). These nine countries had 900 million Internet subscribers in 2013, representing 69% of the 1.3 billion Asian subscribers and 32% of the 2.
I’ve been asked by several people to comment on the choice of a Japanese standard for digital broadcasting in Sri Lanka, as part of the process of clearing the 700 MHz band of analog TV broadcasting and making the freed up spectrum available for more productive uses. I have not commented, partly because I lack the time to research the subject. But I have not made the effort to reallocate priorities in order to make time for this task because I know that refarming (which is what the digital transition is in essence) is inherently problematic and hard to do. There are pros and cons associated with all standards and there are vested interests that benefit or lose from any standards decision. I have lived long enough to know that there is no objective and undisputed superior standard.
We’re thinking about how we can leverage mobile network big data to help manage infectious diseases. Now the Economist has gotten on the case: Doing the same with Ebola would be hard: in west Africa most people do not own a phone. But CDRs are nevertheless better than simulations based on stale, unreliable statistics. If researchers could track population flows from an area where an outbreak had occurred, they could see where it would be likeliest to break out next—and therefore where they should deploy their limited resources. Yet despite months of talks, and the efforts of the mobile-network operators’ trade association and several smaller UN agencies, telecoms firms have not let researchers use the data (see article).
Our colleague Sunil Abraham had the following to say about Digital India: What do you think of the government’s Digital India plan? The government can use the billions from the Universal Service Obligation fund for broadband connectivity. The markets cannot handle back haul infrastructure and in most countries, some amount of state investment is necessary. Some of the open access details have to be worked out. The government seems to have a monopoly position in execution.
Except for our work on agriculture, most of our activities contribute to the development of the service sector. This is partly because it is the sector that is most dependent on ICT services and because that’s where the investment and growth is, in the countries that we work in. But every so often, industrial policy, or the notion that governments should promote specific industries, including by spending taxpayer money on them, raises its head. I wrote http://www.lankabusinessonline.
I’ve been fascinated with cellar dweller countries for a while. I thought North Korea was the country at the bottom, but then discovered St Helena. So now it appears that St Helena is getting an airport and maybe even a submarine cable? St Helena is a small island heading for big change. One of the most isolated islands in the world, St Helena has been used as a stopover for passing ships on the pre-Suez canal route from Europe to Asia and South Africa and as a place of exile.
Advocates of Internet’s freedom have overwhelmingly supported the U.S. government before WCIT 2012 in Dubai. Thereafter one obscure Mr. Snowden has narrowed, if not collapsed, the floodgate of support for America’s doctrine of Internet.
In Pakistan, they are asking for fingerprints. In India, Aadhaar: ET has learnt that the security establishment is now veering towards the view that since Unique Identification Authority of India ( UIDAI) claims that it has back-end data of most of Aadhaar recipients in the form of address proof document submitted by them while applying for an UID number, Aadhaar as e-KYC can be extended to provision of SIM cards. “Banks are already accepting Aadhaar as e-KYC for opening new bank accounts. Extending this to SIM cards is a major feature of the PM’s Digital India plan. IB’s concerns are being addressed but the project cannot be derailed,” a senior government official said.
Apparently, the eight percent tax on the gross adjusted revenues of ISPs will not be implemented. Good. TRAI had suggested a uniform licence fee of 8 per cent of the AGR (adjusted gross revenue) for all ISP and ISP-Internet Telephony licences. Government levies licence fee on AGR of telecom firms after deducting some components that are not earned from telecom services. TRAI had earlier also recommended that government levy 8 per cent licence fee from April 1, 2013, but the proposal was deferred then, after questions raised on revenue items that should be considered for calculating the final charges.