Minister of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure Harin Fernando last week confirmed that Google was exploring ‘other options’ to pilot and implement Project Loon as there have been certain inefficiencies recently in relation to getting the required spectrum for the trials.
When inquired about the current status of the project, he said that the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) was lobbying with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for clearance to allocate the MHz pair (10MHz/10MHz) in the 700 band spectrum for trials.
The delay in the Loon project is the contaoversy with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) regarding the 700MHz sepectrum. The matter has also been referred to the Attorny General to pursue legal assistance to arrive at a solution.
Given the delays however, the minister told the media that it was likely that Google was looking for other options too, ideally a country which isn’t a member of the ITU because the protocols and procedures involving the international body are tedious and time-consuming.
He said that ITU has said that the required frequencies cannot be released. “Now it is up to Google to make the necessary negotiations with the ITU. From our end, we are doing the needful,” said Fernando.
The Minsiter said that the ICTA has referred the matter to the Attorney General who will submit a report to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management Chaired by the Prime Minister.
Project Loon is an innovation spearheaded by Google and is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to extend internet connectivity to people of a given country.
When asked about Chamath Palihapitiya’s involvement in the project, Minister said that he has been acting as a facilitator to launch and run trials of the project through his company Rama Co. Answering a question raised by a journalist as to what the government’s stake will be in the venture, or will it remain at 25% as initially announced, the minister said that these terms will be revisited following the trials. At the moment, he said that no other documents have been signed between the government and the investors besides the initial MoU between ICTA and Google Loon and its affiliate Rama Co on July 28 2015, for the purpose of formalizing working relationships and facilitating pilot project implementation.
He said that Rama Co will own the Loons under ‘Project Rama’. The loons will be auctioned to telcos and other stakeholders following the successful implementation of the project.
However, he accused certain parties of waiting for the project to become a failure for petty political gains. He said that the negative media reports online may have also contributed for Google’s loss of enthusiasm on investing in the project.
“It is unfortunate that there are parties who are waiting for this project to become a failure. They do not seem to understand that, as a norm, if a country can increase its internet penetration by 10%, it can cause for the country’s GDP to grow by 1.2%” he indicated.
The minister also emphasized that the Government of Sri Lanka has not spent any money of the tax payers on this project .He said that the proposal for piloting Project Loon in Sri Lanka as a means of providing affordable access to the internet across the country was mediated through Chamath Palihapitiya who is an ex Facebook employee and a Silicon Valley investor.
“ICTA was not involved in the selection of any of the investors or affiliates in putting together the solution. Its role was merely as a facilitator as ICTA saw this opportunity as a blessing and was willing to embrace it with both hands,” he clarified.
The minister added: “The government is already losing something close to 2 million dollars a due to not digitizing. Innovation was never in our DNA but then Google Loon came along and we were excited about it.”
Setting the record straight however, Fernando said that Project Loon was not yet another ‘Volkswagen Story’ – implying that Google has so far been on the same page as the government and ICTA.
A recent report published by We Are Social, a global digital agency, indicated that Sri Lanka’s internet penetration as of January 2017 was at 30% as a percentage of the population. This means out of the total population of 20.86 million, 6.26 had access to internet. The number of active social media users was given as 4.9 million while the number of mobile subscription was 26.36 million, a staggering 126% as a percentage of the population.
Minister Harin Fernando commenting on the above figures said that although at face value it may seem like a mismatch that the internet penetration was at 30% while the amount of mobile subscribers was 126% as a percentage of population, the number of smartphone users in the country was still around 36% as a percentage of the total number of subscribers.
Sri Lanka’s internet penetration has shown an upward trend over the last few years with the penetration in 2016 being 29.3%, 2015 recording a total penetration of 28.2% and 2014 and 2013 recording 25.8% and 21.9% respectively according to internetlivestats.com.