Real broadband

August 22, 2007

By Rohan Samarajiva

Why broadband?

Just a few years ago, we were trying to figure out what the Internet was. Those days, pretty much everyone was using the Internet from their workplaces: using dial-up.

Now, life doesn’t feel complete without broadband. Some have always-on connections even from their homes, and their concern is that it takes ages to download a video clip, or that on most days, it’s impossible.

Is this some kind of upper-middle class fad, here today, gone tomorrow?

Doesn’t seem to be. Sri Lanka’s first mesh network popped up in Mahavilachchiya, within hoo distance of Wilpattu. They’ve got broadband; they’ve got blogs; they’ve even got a BPO. A BPO is a place that takes a part of a firm’s operations and does it for them. Not for charity, but for real money.

People are making money in the middle of the jungle using computers and telecom. Without broadband, they could not.

Broadband is not only about work and making money. It’s fun. One of the key drivers of broadband in the most advanced broadband country in Asia (and indeed the whole world, for a few years until little Iceland overtook it) is gaming.

Unreal broadband

To play interactive games online, you need real fast and reliable connectivity. We can’t yet have that kind of fun in Sri Lanka. But pretty soon, we will. I say that with the faith that comes from seeing how far we’ve come since I dialed up CompuServe in Columbus, Ohio, from a Kaypro on Sir Arthur Clarke’s IDD line in 1986.

But just faith won’t do. We need a whole series of actions by the operators and by the regulator to make real broadband happen.

No jargon. Simple, common sense.

Circuit-switched networks (old style phone networks; even at present, most of our voice calls, fixed and mobile, go on circuit-switched networks) are very inefficient but give assured quality. A circuit-switched network includes a separate signalling network.

The way it works is like this: I want to go from Colombo to Kandy by car. I use the signalling system to reserve a lane. Once it is reserved, I start the journey. Obviously, the journey is very smooth; my vehicle is the only vehicle on the lane, right up to Kandy; after I get there, I use the signalling networks to release the lane for someone else to use.

When I want to go from Colombo to Kandy on a packet-switched network, I don’t get my own lane. My message is broken up into separate packets and the packets go on the available lanes like cars now go from Colombo to Kandy. Much more efficient use of the road, but not as good on quality.

When there are too many cars on the road, we have congestion. When they dig up the road in Warakapola and close one lane, we have congestion. When three lanes merge into two, we have congestion.

When there is congestion everyone goes, but goes much slower. On the circuit-switched form, when there is too much traffic, you just don’t get to go: you keep asking for a lane but get a busy signal telling you no lane is available. Quality is excellent if you get the lane; but awful if you don’t.

Getting to real

So what do we want the operators to do? When you sell us a 512 Kbps residential connection or a 2 Mbps business connection, try to give us something approaching what you promised. Most of the time. We (most of us, at least) will understand if there are bad times; if the speed drops for a few hours in a day. But we won’t if the bad times are all the time.

Right now, many people don’t have much choice when it comes to broadband. Because the obsolete monopoly on drawing wire to homes and offices has not been removed, SLTL is the only supplier of ADSL, a technology that depends on splitting the copper wire, one part for voice and the other for data.

Everyone else is limited to wireless. Companies like LankaCom were created in the early 1990s to serve the “broadband” needs of export-oriented companies. They were the only game in town in the 1990s. They continue to be charged such high spectrum fees that they cannot compete with ADSL. The rules haven’t changed with the times.

Suntel and Lanka Bell can give data connectivity over their CDMA frequencies, but this is not always-on and relatively slow.

Until recently, SLTL had a lock on the “big pipes” that connect the main cities and the cities to the outside, the fibre optic rings and the undersea cable. In 2004 the monopoly that SLTL had on the undersea cable was broken. Now VSNL, Dialog and SLTL can provide external connections through the undersea cable thanks to which we have a BPO industry with 4,000 plus employees.

Since then, Dialog has built its own fibre ring, though it is still far behind SLTL in coverage. SLTL has gone to Hambantota and Anuradhapura, in addition to the original ring that went up to Nuwara Eliya.

Now, using its fibre and WIMAX for the access network, Dialog has begun to offer broadband connections, finally giving a real alternative to ADSL from SLTL. But two suppliers do not competition make.

The government has to introduce greater competition by removing obsolete monopolies and rationalizing spectrum fees. If necessary, admit new suppliers.

The regulator will have to look at the terms and conditions of access to the fibre, both undersea and within the country, and ensure more operators can use it on reasonable terms and without discrimination.

Free up more frequencies for the mobiles so that they can give data connectivity, even if narrowband. 3G should not be treated as something totally new, it’s backward compatible with 2G GSM; it should be treated as such, a simple extension of 2G GSM.

If things don’t improve, even with these actions, then the regulator may have to start running quality tests on the ADSL and WIMAX connections and ordering refunds. Given the trouble the Telecom Regulatory Commission has in enforcement, that should be a final resort.

The best solution is for the operators to do the right thing; give the customers what they paid for. The people who want broadband now are prime customers; people who will keep buying more and more communication services; it is in the interests of the operators to keep them happy.

Giving them the speeds they were promised for half the day is not too much to ask, is it?

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