Posted by : Amitha Amarasinghe Saturday, February 25, 2012

In my last post, I discussed about Sri Lanka reaching double digit internet penetration for the first time in history. The moment I posted that blog, it occurred to me that, we are boasting about a 12% penetration in Sri Lanka, where as in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Maldives, they have already surpassed 20% milestone.
In the second decade of 21st century, having an internet penetration of just 12% is not something that we can be proud of as a nation of just 20 million population spread across in a small island. First cellular phone company started operations in Sri Lanka, only in 1990, and first GSM network was launched just a couple of years later. Since then, Sri Lanka is now having over 17 million active mobile subscribers which is nearly a 90% penetration. Similarly, the first ISP operation started in Sri Lanka around 1995, and as of today we have about 4 fixed line ISP operators (1 ADSL, and 3 WIMAX) and 4 mobile broadband operators (HSPA – 3G+) . But, after nearly two decades from the inauguration of first ISP operation; we only managed to reach a mere 12% internet penetration. Why did the growth of internet usage suffered, while the mobile phone penetration thrived?

The main impeding factor I can see is the cost of hardware. Even though, the cost of internet subscriptions came down significantly over last few years, the cost of computer hardware is still a barrier for low and middle income earning families to get online. A brand new personal computer at lowest, may still cost somewhere around LKR 50,000, which is almost three times the average household income of a Sri Lankan family. Unlike in countries like India or Bangladesh, we do not see proactive initiatives by NGO’s, development banks etc for micro-financing for ICT equipments. Instead, we have seen several community projects initiated by some government run ICT agencies to provide ICT training. Training is a requirement, but what would an average rural youth do after obtaining the training, if he/she cannot afford to buy a PC or a laptop for their personal use?

A second important impeding factor for internet growth in Sri Lanka is the culture. In a typical innovation adoption curve, Sri Lankans will easily be categorized as “later majority”. We wait until rest of the world experiment with things, make mistakes, take corrective actions, and prove a live example that something is safe to do. First commercial broadcasting of TV happened back in 1935 in Germany, and it took 43 years for Sri Lanka to start our first TV station. That wasn’t because we didn’t have investors or know-how to start a TV station, but rather because of the policies of governments during those days who believed “TV is evil”. Same way, as of this date most Sri Lankan adults perceives internet as ‘evil’. Internet and pornography are almost synonyms in some school teachers’ dictionaries, so they thoroughly advice parents not to give internet access to school children until they finish key exams like GCE (A/L). Unfortunate thing is, we never had strong opinion builders (shapers?) within the mass media circles, who are capable of taking the message out to the public, that the internet can actually help children to do better in exams. Instead the veteran mass media journalists are supporting the cliché that ‘internet is evil’ and discouraging people from giving access to the internet to their children.

Moving forward, I believe there should be some sort of a public awareness taking place to counter these misconceptions about internet. Certain mass media journalists (on press & TV) are proactively spreading these negative stories about internet; largely because of they felt threatened by the change. 

The public awareness campaign should be initiated by an alliance of internet service providers. If you all get together and work hard to make the size of the cake larger, the piece that you will enjoy can be a little bit larger as well. Take an example from Life Insurance industry. While competing against each other to grab new business, Life Insurance companies in Sri Lanka are collaborating to expand their category in an industry focused effort. Unfortunately, we do not see such an initiative from either the broadband service providers, or from the regulatory body which is suppose to be performing the job of uplifting the standards of telecommunications in Sri Lanka.

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