Is Google Loon right technology for Sri Lanka?



article_image

By Dr. Manodha Gamage


Surely we can achieve the complete coverage using 13 balloons, but how do you provide the required capacity with just 13 of them is not asked and answered by anyone. It is next to impossible. What is the cost of sending a balloon up, as the life-time of them is only 100-150 days, it would be interesting to know the total cost of sending these balloons up, and operate them say 5 years. Can it be cheaper than the conventional mobile technologies in a small country like Sri Lanka?


As a technologist, I always appreciate the innovation of ICT giants such as Google, Microsoft, and FB etc. Google Loon is yet another great innovation by Google. Engaging with Google and similar Internet giants as much as possible is always beneficial to a country like Sri Lanka.


What is Google Loon? This is how it is explained by Google (https://www.google.com/loon/) "Many of us think of the Internet as a global community. But two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters". So it is a technology to connect the rural and remote areas, especially to fill the coverage gaps that cannot be covered by conventional cellular technologies due to various reasons.


It is very important to understand the context of broadband in Sri Lanka, before evaluating the next steps to be done to improve the GDP by improving broadband penetration in Sri Lanka. Even though we don’t have exact details of broadband coverage, the 5 mobile operators and the 2 fixed operators have achieved a high percentage of the population in Sri Lanka, the largest operator surely covering over 80% of the population and the 2nd largest surely covering over 70% of the population.


As everywhere in the world, the mobile broadband has surpassed the fixed broadband by a large margin. We know that the mobile phone penetration is over 100% in Sri Lanka, with GSM networks covering almost the 100% of the population, but the broadband penetration is very low around 25% or less. As per ITU Sri Lanka is ranked as one of the cheapest as far as the mobile broadband is concerned. Some of the key reasons for this low usage of broadband & Internet in Sri Lanka are as follows: Lack of applications for common people, hence no reasons to spend on a broadband connection. This can be improved by providing all government services online, and using ICT more for health, education, agriculture, finance etc.


Low computer literacy and low affordability of devices (computers and smart devices); one solution could be to start community centers with broadband connectivity, where the masses can visit regularly. Even schools could be used as such centers as they could be open to public after school hours.


Low literacy in English - therefore we should increase the useful applications and information in local languages (Sinhala and Tamil). Lack of affordability to own a broadband connection (even though we have one of the cheapest mobile BB rates) - Community centers with broadband connectivity would be the solution for this as well. We all know that increasing the broadband penetration and thereby the Internet usage would increase the GDP of a country considerably. Therefore, the immediate task of the Ministry of Telecommunications and Digitization is to take immediate measures to address the above 4 important issues and try to increase the broadband penetration in the country closer to 80% (from around 20-25% today), as we already cover about 80% of the population with mobile broadband.


It would take at least 3 - 5 years to get closer to that magic 80%, even if we adopt very aggressive strategies. Surely, during that time our mobile operators would expand their access networks to reach the 100% population, with the application of correct policies by the government and the TRCSL. Since the barrier to expand any further is financial than technical, the TRCSL can provide the suitable spectrum (such as 700MHz band), free of charge to the operators with strict conditions to expand the access networks to reach 100% of the population. TRCSL can provide incentives to further encourage the operators to share resources (such as towers, transmission, backbone network, spectrum etc.) as much as possible. At the moment since we don’t hear much about the above factors, but only about the Google Loon as a pet project of the government, I would like to raise the following concerns.


Surely we can achieve the complete coverage using 13 balloons, but how do you provide the required capacity with just 13 of them is not asked and answered by anyone. It is next to impossible. What is the cost of sending a balloon up, as the life-time of them is only 100-150 days, it would be interesting to know the total cost of sending these balloons up, and operate them say 5 years. Can it be cheaper than the conventional mobile technologies in a small country like Sri Lanka?


Since Sri Lanka has a very low Average Revenue per User (ARPU), the sustainable business model of Google Loon, it should be noted that the ARPU of the population in very rural communities that Google Loon is trying to provide services would be well below the low average ARPU of the country. Also interesting to know is how the Google Loon technology can match the lowest mobile broadband pricing that already exists in this country. Even though it was repeatedly mentioned that Google Loon would provide 4G (LTE) technologies, these very rural communities, who cannot afford smart devices and PCs, surely will not have access to 4G (LTE) devices.


In conclusion, I believe that the priority in Sri Lanka should be to address the above identified issues and make sure we gradually increase the broadband (and Internet) penetration from 25% to 80% (as we already cover about 80% of the population with broadband). Then the next step in about 3-5 years time would be to carefully evaluate all options we have. As per my expertise in Mobile technologies and experience (closer to 2 decades) in Sri Lanka and overseas, I am sure if the TRCSL and the Ministry of Telecommunications provide the incentives to the existing mobile operators, they should be able to cover the 100% of the population with broadband when we really need it.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...