Sri Lanka needs a National Broadband Network

Many countries have taken the initiative to implement nationwide high speed broadband networks. Greater internet use will increase the demand for broadband and existing legacy telecommunication networks will not be able to support the increase in internet data traffic for much longer and provide high speed broadband connections needed for future applications. It is time that Sri Lanka also initiates steps to build a National Broadband Network (NBN) that would provide high speed internet access to all areas of the country. Such a network is vital for the future economic prosperity of Sri Lanka. Effective use of broadband can enhance the economic performance and environmental and social well being of the country. To get the benefits of high speed broadband it needs to be available at affordable rates with an acceptable quality of service all over the country including rural areas.

Despite the current global economic crisis, developed countries have committed huge investments to build up NBNs. They see such infrastructure investments as a catalyst to spur up growth and provide new opportunities which would enable them to come out of recession. In the USA the Obama administration Economic stimulus legislation include a US$7.2 Billion Broadband stimulus component. Australia unveiled a A$43 Billion NBN plan recently which is the largest ever single infrastructure development project in the country that will provide ninety percent of Australian homes with a fibre cable based broadband connection. The Australian Government will set up a company with 51% Government ownership to set up the NBN.

The NBN should be based on future proofed technology and fibre has long proven to be the most reliable medium with continuing advances in optical fibre transmission and optical switching systems for providing high bandwidth access. It is a technology that is expected to meet the user demands of Next Generation Networks in the next ten years and beyond in urban and suburban environments. A Fibre to the Home (FTTH) network connecting fibre optic cables direct to homes (and workplaces, schools) that will allow data speeds of up to 100Mbps will be able to support many new applications like two way interactive video services including video conferencing, IPTV, distance learning applications, cloud computing etc. In the initial stages of a NBN it may not be viable to provide fibre cables to each and every home specially in rural areas. A Fibre to the Node (FTTN) network where fibre cables terminate in neighbourhoods and a combination of DSL, coaxial cable and wireless technologies used for the last mile access could be an initial stage of a NBN. Next Generation high speed wireless access technologies like WiMax and Long Term Evolution (LTE) can be used supplement the fibre based network for last mile access.

A robust backhaul network that provides the backbone of the NBN connecting regional and rural towns of the country is a prerequisite for implementation of the NBN. High capacity optical fibre transmission links of the backhaul network can be laid along the railway line network and hooked to the high tension electricity distribution network. A fibre optic submarine cable around the country along the coast can be used to connect the coastal towns with landing points in key coastal towns. The backhaul network with high capacity links based on fibre optic cables would form the core of NBN. It can also be used to interconnect telephone exchanges, switching centres and radio base stations of the mobile phone network. The new technological trend is to use a common single network to carry all types of information in digital form from internet traffic, data and voice to video. Globally all telecommunication networks are migrating to an IP (Internet Protocol) based platform to carry different types of information and the NBN could also be built on an IP based single platform infrastructure. The success of a reliable NBN will also depend on having adequate high capacity connection to the international internet backbone network and providing a high quality of service to the subscribers. The Telecom Regulatory Commission has already taken the initiative for a nationwide backbone network.

An NBN will improve Sri Lanka’s productivity and economic prosperity. Studies have suggested that widespread access to high speed broadband has increased economic activity resulting in increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the years. High Speed Broadband access is vital to the efficient and effective delivery of public and private sector services. It will create new industries and new jobs. Rural areas will benefit from greater connectedness to the outside world. Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO) and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industries can be set up with involvement of the educated workforce of Sri Lanka to service industries in the developed world to earn valuable foreign exchange. NBN would enable many teleworking opportunities where some workers would be able do some of their work from home. It would lead to flexible work practices and working hours easing the stress on day to day family life, and increase in business productivity and efficiency. When people have broadband access, their geographic location becomes less of a barrier to economic and social inclusion. Opportunities provided by broadband access will make it easier for people to live and work in rural areas and to support local development. It will help to avoid unnecessary migration and lead to a more balanced population distribution. New job opportunities in regional areas will help to reduce transport costs, urban migration and congestion resulting in a greener and sustainable environment. All these depend on the availability of an affordable and reliable NBN.

Allowing market forces to sort out the broadband access to the masses may delay the benefits to the people and would not provide the optimal broadband infrastructure setup for the country. If different service providers are allowed to build their own networks it may result in duplication or triplication of network infrastructure wasting valuable resources. A suggested set up would be for the Government to implement an NBN as a public private partnership through a single network which will be used by different service providers to give end user access to subscribers. Setting up a majority government owned company similar to what has been proposed in Australia is an option that should be seriously explored.

The return on investment of an NBN should not be measured purely in monetary terms. A high return on an investment business model may not be visible for an NBN at the outset but the costs incurred will be far outweighed by the benefits. The socio economic benefits resulting in setting up an NBN will be felt across all sectors of the economy.

Sri Lankans have quite an array of hidden talents and tremendous potential to perform well. It has always been proven that given the right conditions and access to resources Sri Lankans have always excelled in their chosen fields. Lack of opportunities, resources and access to information have been holding them back in their endeavour to perform well. Broadband access will help to promote equal opportunities for everyone. Sri Lanka has missed many opportunities in the past due to not implementing far sighted strategic policies in education and national development. Lack of employment opportunities, underemployment for the educated, low income and the widening gap between rich and poor have resulted in youth frustration and unrest resulting in many social and economic problems which ended up in insurgencies against the state. An NBN will be a beacon of hope for all Sri Lankans to bridge the digital divide and provide equal access to knowledge, information and learning opportunities for all.

In embracing new communication technologies Sri Lanka has been in the forefront among developing countries. Similarly in implementing an NBN Sri Lanka can to be a leader among developing countries rather than a follower and should aspire to become a leading digital economy of the world.

The Government has taken initial steps in the right direction to give priority to Information and Communication services through the eSriLanka initiative. The Government should step in and take some decisive steps to make a National Broadband Network a reality.

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