It was in 1998, almost 20 years ago, that I was invited to a meeting at the Urban Development Authority of Sri Lanka in my capacity as Director General of Telecommunications. They had identified a high point in the city of Colombo to locate ALL the cellular antenna towers and they wanted me to concur with their plans. I explained that the very concept of cells required multiple towers in multiple locations. Twenty years later, the same ignorance is being displayed again. A Minister of the government is making speeches in Parliament about how all of Sri Lanka can be served by nine towers.
Some people are surprised that after all these years of speaking, responding, discussing, I still prepare when asked to speak in public. So when I was asked to serve as a discussant at a CEPA conference on infrastructure and urbanization, I read the papers. They had very little to do with the subject matter, choosing instead to regurgitate the obsolete ideological debates of the 1970s. But one sentence caught my eye: “After seven decades of national development and an expansion of the middle-class over a couple of decades, there are more poor people in Sri Lanka today than at independence.” No reference was provided, but I started digging.
Yesterday, I was the only non-politician on a political debate show on TV known as “Satana” (battle). The topic was the new President’s/government’s 100 Day Program (of which more than one-third has passed). I was not expecting to talk about the taxes imposed on the mobile industry, but right in the middle, one of the “referees” asked me about one of the three (or two, depending on the company size) taxes imposed on the mobile operators. I briefly answered saying it was not a good idea since its retroactive and mobile-specific nature was likely to have the effect of depressing investment that was needed if Sri Lanka is to move to the next stage of connectivity beyond voice. I had taken this position without any serious pushback in other media since shortly after the interim budget was announced.
The Lankadeepa, the leading Sinhala newspaper in Sri Lanka, has reported a speech by Dr Ranga Kalansooriya at a recent event on media ethics organized by the Sri Lanka Press Institute, where he claims that a survey covering 14 out of the 25 districts showed very high levels of reliance on the Internet for political news. Of those who had changed their views on who to vote for President, 59 per cent had done so based on TV; while 31 percent did so because of Internet content. Only one percent of those changing their stance had done so because of print media Somewhat ironically, the SLPI has not posted any information related to the event on its website. Hopefully, more information about this survey will be forthcoming.
First reports of the Indian census are coming in. Communication: A telephone, whether a land line or mobile, is used by 63 percent of total households – 82 percent in urban areas and 54 percent in rural areas, an increase of 54 percentage points from 2001. A mobile phone is owned by 59 percent of households. There has been a huge jump in television ownership – up from 15.6 percent to 43 percent in since 2001.
The last burst of dissemination for the teleuse@BOP3 results is yielding good results, this time with an agency story about more BOP homes in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan having phones than radios, a story we had blogged about some time back. Phones are catching up with TVs, and the number of phones being used by ‘bottom of the pyramid’ households have already outpaced the number of radios and computers in South Asia, researchers have said. LIRNEasia, a Sri Lanka-based Asia-Pacific information and communication technology (ICT) policy and regulation capacity-building organisation, said in India a hundred bottom of the pyramid (BOP) households now had 50 TVs, 38 phones, 28 radios and one computer. Radio has been displaced from its No.2 position after television in India.
In other countries, government are focusing on removing electronic equipment from the waste stream, basically requiring the equipment vendors to take the unwanted equipment back. Since January, Washington State residents and small businesses have been allowed to drop off their televisions, computers and computer monitors free of charge to one of 200 collection points around the state. They have responded by dumping more than 15 million pounds of electronic waste, according to state collection data. If disposal continues at this rate, it will amount to more than five pounds for every man, woman and child per year. In Sri Lanka, the Environment Ministry is collecting massive amounts of money from mobile usage, in the name of recycling mobile phones.
Until recently, I believed, with Richard Heeks quoted below, that radio is found in more homes (at the BOP or all) than phones and TVs. Survey data from the BOP at three countries that account for the world’s greatest concentration of poor people (Pakistan, India and Bangladesh) tell a story that contradicts the common wisdom. In India, 58% of BOP households have TVs, while only 32% have radios. And some kind of phone in the household? 45%!
The story is based on US data, but it is still grist for the mill as we think about how the mobile and Internet will change the mediasphere in emerging Asia. We are so smitten with screens that we often can’t bear to choose one over another: 31 percent of Internet use occurs while we’re in front of a TV set. We are also taking an interest in watching video on our phones: 100 million handsets are video-capable.