Is there anyone from Google out there? Anyone?
Good. If there is, know that you – and the company you work for – are now part of Sri Lanka’s many political campaigns.

Let me explain. I’m looking at a copy of the daily newspaper. On the front page is a photo of Muhunthan Canagey, shaking hands with Mike Cassidy, VP at Google at head of Project Loon. “Sri Lanka creates universal internet access world history” with Google Loon, reads the headline. “First affordable highspeed internet to all citizens…in conjuction with ICTA’s plans for 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots.”

What rubbish.

I’m sure everyone remembers ICTA’s ‘free Wi-Fi’: a move where the ICTA basically went to the telecommunications companies, told them to allocate a certain number of megabytes per citizen in the country, and to get that shit into the Fort Railway Station ASAP. This they then threw out to the media as yet another lovely project by your friendly neighborhood bureaucracy.

Yahapalanaya, ft ICTA.
When it failed, they tried to pass it off as a big data experiment, a test to see what people are browsing.

Of course. Why did we not think of it before? Instead of obtaining the internet access data and analytics from telcos, why don’t we set up free Wi-Fi portals so we can see what kind of porn they watch while waiting for the train?

But I digress. Free Wi-Fi was a stupid thing to promise, and it’s still stupid, especially for Sri Lanka*.The kind of data capacity a person can consume these days, even doing something as simple as checking email, comes at a hefty price.**

Free Wi-Fi was a publicity stunt. Not that the reporters writing this drivel seem to understand this.

Now we’re witnessing a second publicity stunt: Google Loon. The papers are full of wonderfully vague promises. Affordable internet to all? Yes, sure.

Let me be clear. I think Loon is brilliant. I think Chamath Palihapitiya, a Silicon valley-based investor who apparently made the necessary introductions, should receive a hearty pat on the back…

From SLT executives, not from the public.
Because, let’s be perfectly realistic: Loon is not going to disrupt  the SLT, Dialog or any other service provider: that’s not how it works. Instead, Loon simply extends the reach of these networks with 4G. Those 13 balloons are like giant 4G antennas in the sky.

Google gains a testbed – a small country with sub-par connectivity and existing infrastructure. The telcos gain giant amplifiers hung in the sky. A single balloon is capable of covering an area of 5000 square kilometers.

Note that nowhere does it say ‘free’: It says ‘affordable’, which is Sri Lankan for ‘we will bill the shit out of you’.

And, pardon me, I don’t see your average haminey with a 4G dongle. That shit is expensive, even for me.  So, long story short: SLT 4G (and Dialog 4G, if they’re in on it) is getting a free boost. We, the people, are not. So stop clapping your hands.

In the meanwhile, all that rhetoric in the papers? “Foreign Affairs Minister, Mangala Samaraweera told the gathering, that the Sri Lankan people were at the cusp of reclaiming their heritage of being connected to each other and connected to the world.”  Reclaiming heritage, my foot. The Foreign Affairs Minister should instead have pointed out the auspicious timing this announcement has with the upcoming election. His next statement was more revealing: “In a few months we will be able to say that Sri Lanka [is] covered.”

Yes, that’s exactly what this thing is: a politician’s ability to say that “Sri Lanka” is “Covered”. After all, that’s exactly what EVERYTHING in this country boils down to. Sri Lanka Telecom tells you service is available and sells you a crappy connection that doesn’t connect for more than five minutes at a time. The electricity folks sell you powercuts. ICTA, and whoever’s running this program, can say they did their part for the current government.

Sri Lanka, wonderful land of statistics: The land where we know the coverage of everything, but the value of absolutely nothing.
But I digress. It seems that not only the stars, but also balloons are smiling down upon Yahalpalanaya. I’d give anything to know what they’re grinning at. In the meantime, here’s to ICTA, election campaigner extraordinaire. They should stop being an IT agency and start being an ad agency instead.

*We don’t have an IXP in the country and the bulk of content we use is hosted overseas, leading to massive costs as the data travels up and down the pipes (undersea cables) that we don’t own.

**Add to that the inevitable guy who will stream anime from it and screw it up for everyone in a 10-km radius …

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