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11.8% Internet Penetration? Is This Really Enough?

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.

Originally posted on www.amisampath.com Like this blog? Get email updates when I post next time, or subscribe to the feed on a reader. Follow me on Twitter @Amisampath

2 comments:

  1. You make an astute analysis, Amir. Most people would throw their hands up and say there's nothing to be done, and move on.
    The public awareness idea is a good one, but I like to suggest that for it to have long term effect, it could be something that is done not with a top down approach. The teacher, the politician, the typical celebrity may have people's attention in short-term campaigns, but we may need a movement that grows organically: A grassroots movement, with awareness created BY young people FOR young people. There are many grassroots organization there who are doing some of these things, so maybe they ought to take up your challenge.

    I am very optimistic, having followed the Refresh movement and other initiatives. There are your though leaders!

    In fact, while you address hardware costs, it might be that from these movements evolve someone who develops the next big device, the next great app that connects students with knowledge etc.

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  2. Hi Angelo,

    Yes, a grassroots level movement is much needed to debunk some of the negative perceptions created by so called 'mainstream media'. In an average Sri Lankan adult's mind, Internet is just for 'porn' but not for anything else.

    I was at a training session recently conducted at Ogilvy by a representative from Google APAC. According to him, Google monitors the volumes of 'sex related queries' coming from each markets and the moment they see rest of the queries becoming more popular that these 'sex related queries', they come to the conclusion that the market is becoming more matured. According to him, even in Sri Lanka the same trend is being observed. People are now using internet for other needs, than for surfing porn. This is a good sign... We need this message to be spoken out loud to the masses. But unfortunately, every weekend we see newspaper articles highlighting the negative side of Facebook and intenret. Are they felt threatened? I don't know..

    There were few ideas shared yesterday at the Social Media Day Colombo. People were talking about getting together and initiating voluntary work to promote using Social Meida for social good. May be this is just a beginning.. We should see more people getting on-board soon.

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