The Internet has been a means of providing continuity in employment and education to many in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stakeholders throughout the Internet ecosystem have had to step up to provide connectivity—both to those previously unconnected, and those already connected but with increased demand. Internet service providers (ISPs) in Sri Lanka have been no exception. Responding to a request of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL), many fixed and mobile Internet service providers began providing special packages targeting those working and studying from home. The basic premise is that these packages should allow for cheaper access to the Internet to allow individuals to engage in their work and/or studies.
As everyone knows, COVID-19 and associated lockdowns have reduced electricity demand and increased demand for data. Especially in countries like Sri Lanka which are dependent on imported coal/diesel for production of electricity, there is a great interest in increasing energy efficiency. The IEA has published an interesting report on energy use by data centers and in data transmission. Strong growth in demand for data centre services continues to be offset by ongoing efficiency improvements for servers, storage devices, network switches and data centre infrastructure, as well as a shift to much greater shares of cloud and hyperscale data centres. Hyperscale data centres are very efficient large-scale cloud data centres that run at high capacity, owing in part to virtualisation software that enables data centre operators to deliver greater work output with fewer servers.
I just finished talking to around a hundred students at the Sri Lanka Technological Campus on the above topic. I talked about the differences in kinds of jobs/tasks: consultants/entrepreneurs vs those working in large organizations; those whose work could be done remotely (Robert Reich’s symbol analysts) and those who required co-presence; and also in terms of how demand was affected (those in rubber gloves sector need not worry, while those in tourism services had plenty of cause to worry). And of course we ended up in the usual place: “learning to learn” Jobs for the new normal
The consumption of “fast fashion” and airline travel may decline, but Internet use and consumption of various Internet-based services is likely to rise. This is an opportunity for start-ups as well as the China-based behemoths that the US media makes a habit of ignoring. It’s our job to recognize the bias and correct it. But the actions of the American tech cos will affect our lives in multiple ways, the Facebook investment in Reliance Jio being a prime example. But again, it’s important to note who will be in the driving seat at Reliance Jio: all Facebook got for USD 5.
The problem with regulating information is its inherent slipperyness. In 2018, when invited to speak on the subject I quoted a Deputy Minister of the Malaysian Government, speaking in Parliament: Datuk Jailani Johari, the Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister, explained that fake news is information that is confirmed to be untrue, especially by the authorities or parties related to the news. He said that 1MDB has been investigated by the police and Attorney-General and the reports have been presented to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is made up of lawmakers from both sides of the divide. Jailani added that recommendations from the PAC report have been accepted and been implemented by the Government. .
LIRNEasia advocated the linking of the Sri Lankan and Indian electricity grids in its formal submission to a PUCSL hearing in 2013. Despite the usual objections I have been promoting this idea ever since, most recently in relation to the government decision to commission another coal-fired plant in Norochcholai. It appears that the 2003 feasibility study that we keep referring to, is obsolete. According to this report, it appears considerable advances have been made in sub-sea electricity cable technology. I hope the government of Indian and Sri Lanka commission an fresh feasibility study and get the job done.
One can debate the pros and cons of SIM registration. It is difficult to argue that SIMs should be treated differently from cars, which can also be used for good and ill. Cars are therefore registered in ways that associate a natural or legal person with the device. Yet, as our colleague Htaike Htaike Aung points out below, there can be no justification for the abuse of funds built up from a 2 percent tax on telecom users to support a SIM database, that has nothing to do with the stated objectives of the universal service fund. According to the strategy paper seen by The Myanmar Times, the fund is intended for developing infrastructure and digital literacy training programmes, connecting people in commercially non-viable areas and implementing projects for minorities, persons with disabilities and poor people.
LIRNEasia’s Data Algorithms and Policy workstream includes research on epidemiology as well as research on the potential uses of satellite imagery for development purposes. Like everyone (it seems) we too are avidly following the massive outpouring of research on COVID-19. Thus, we were intrigued by the recent prepublication from Harvard on when COVID-19 may have arisen in Wuhan. We have been somewhat skeptical about the conclusions that could be drawn from search terms in countries with low Internet use and different cultural attitudes to treatment of disease. But we are intrigued by the reported co-incidence of search terms related to gastro-intestinal and respiratory problems.
Of the many things I have written on policy and regulation, there have to be a few that I regret, or were outright wrong. Sometime in 1999 or 2000, TERI asked me to write something about telecos in the developing countries getting into other businesses. Based on some earlier work–Regional Telephone Holding Companies: Structures, Affiliate Transactions, and Regulatory Options, NRRI 93-05 (Rosenberg, E. A, Borrows, J.D.
As suppliers of public goods (policy relevant research), we at LIRNEasia know the importance of taxes. If there were no taxes, there would be no Internet. Much of the research being done today on multiple aspects of the response to COVID-19 is funded by taxes, including the flood of scientific articles that we are struggling to keep up with. The problem is that taxes have traditionally been levied on businesses located within the boundaries of the nation state. Tax is coercive, so in essence tax collection requires the ability of the state to audit tax declarations and to throw people into jail if they lie to the state or if they fail to pay taxes that are due.
The ITU’s ICT Price Trends 2019 report was just published. Below is an excerpt from an op-ed published today in the Daily FT: One cannot use data without 3G and 4G coverage. This is not available in all localities. Coverage is the necessary condition for data use. Content is the sufficient condition.
LIRNEasia has partnered with Vihara Innovation Network to set up a Disability Innovation Pre-Accelerator Lab from 10th August – 26th August 2020.  Distilling the learnings from phase I research, LIRNEasia and Vihara collectively conceptualized the need for organizing an innovation lab that facilitates a platform for innovating contextual solutions catering to the emerging challenges in the disability segment.  Disability Pre-Acceleration Labs has been visioned to act as a precursor to a disability innovation accelerator—a collaborative to accelerate the development of and access to assistive social and technological solutions that enable disabled people to achieve their human potential. The pre-acceleration lab will bring together innovators, disability, technology, and behaviour change experts, impact investors, and people with disabilities to develop and fulfill the vision of creating context-specific, usable solutions to address human potential barriers faced by people with disabilities. We are inviting a diverse set of participants from different segments of disability to participate in this virtual workshop.
A research brief which explores the key data sources, algorithmic techniques and roadblocks in applying remote sensing techniques for development.
A white paper exploring how bias in algorithms and data affect development problems, especially when they interact with socio-legal systems
COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown found educators in Sri Lanka scrambling to connect with their students, and hence the state of internet connectivity of families with children was a crucial piece of data that policymakers needed. In response, LIRNEasia’s survey research team re-analyzed their  2018 AfterAccess dataset with a focus on households with children under 18. Ayesha Zainudeen and Tharaka Amarasinghe presented their analysis at a policy dialogue by the Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL) on “Access to distance education for children Lanka”.  EFSL is the advocacy partner in LIRNEasia’s Education for the Future themed research. As Ayesha and Tharaka note, results for families with children parallel the results for all households, with 48% of households with children owning a smartphone or other device for accessing the Internet, but only 34% could access the internet.
Today I participated in a Zoom meeting organized by the Nightwatchman Society attended by around 200 participants where the above question was discussed by a panel of four, including myself. The recording of the discussion is here. I talked about COVID-19 as having offered us an opportunity to appreciate the importance of building resilient food supply chains. There will be more epidemics and pandemics. There will also be shocks caused by climate change.