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The long march towards instant communications

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From the early sixties to today

by Themiya L.. B. Hurulle

Sri Lanka has come a long way from the 1960s when communicating instantly was limited to a few, was costly and at times subject to long delays. I remember my father in the late 50s and early ‘60s having to wait three to six hrs to make a long-distance telephone calls to Colombo from his hometown Horowpothana even though he was a Member of Parliament and had OFFICIAL PRIORITY calling facility.

However, we tend to take for granted the communication facilities that have presently. It is easy to forget the past and what led us to the present. The present pandemic too has accelerated the actions of more people using computers and telecommunication linked facilities for purposes of commercial and domestic communication and this has helped all greatly.

The purpose of this article is to outline the positive steps that all past governments took to develop Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Sri Lanka. Before that, Computers, Telecommunications and Media were almost ‘stand-alone’ activities. However, the convergence of computer, telecommunication and media their inter-dependency led to this field being called Information and Communications Technology.

 

1977:

With the formation of the government of President J R Jayawardene and Prime Minister R.Premadasa, Sri Lanka took a giant stride in development moving to an ‘open economy’ and this was done with enabling legislation to facilitate market competition and de-regulating imports and exports. As a result state corporations and the private sector adapted themselves to the free market economy to play vital roles. This included the Computer, Telecommunication and Media Sectors as well.

 

1980s

During the 1989 government of President R Premadasa and Prime Minister D B Wijetunga, there were associations of software developers, hardware sales and service providers, all working with dedication to establish the industry. However, more encouragement was given with Industries, Science and Technology Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe chairing meetings of the organizing committee to hold the first INFOTEL ’92 ICT exhibition that gave national attention to the use of computers for development.

Towards the end of the period of the government, the Department of Telecommunications was converted to a state entity as Sri Lanka Telecom with more autonomy and resources to meet the growing need for modern telecommunication services.

 

1994

The 1994 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake took forward the predecessors’ efforts expeditiously. Telecommunications minister Mangala Samaraweera led the privatization of Sri Lanka Telecom. The privatization took place with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation of Japan (NTT) purchasing 35% of shares and the employees of SLT also being given shares to ensure more employee participation. The NTT corporation thus brought in Japanese management and expertise. This helped SLT eliminate the delays encountered in providing telecom services to applicants.

The government also took action to expand the post of the Director-General of Telecommunications to a fully-fledged commission named The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka by an act of Parliament.

This regulatory commission paved the way to clear many bottlenecks including the assignment of radio frequency spectrum in a transparent manner. It further ensured that radio frequency spectrum was deployed in an effective manner for telecommunication services. Contentious issues such as interconnection, caller party pays were addressed for subscribers to get maximum benefits from telecom services. It might be added that the service providers at that time were Sri Lanka Telecom, Suntel, Lanka Bell, Dialog, Celltell , Mobitel and Hutchison. The year1993 saw Mobitel being established as mobile service provider as a collaboration between Sri Lanka Telecom and Telstra of Sweden. However, Mobitel was later purchased by Sri Lanka Telecom Ltd. during Chairman Thilanga Sumathipala’s time.

 

2001

The 2001 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe further advanced activities related to the ICT sector. This included the ending of the monopoly of SLT for international communications. External gateway operator (EGO) licences were issued to the rest of the telecom operators and new entrants. This resulted in a reduction in the costs of overseas calls and further helped the country to connect with the rest of the world.

During this period, the government and the TRC were supported by the World Bank to expedite reforms in ICT. Minster Milinda Moragoda of the Ministry of Economic Reform and Prof.Rohan Samarajiva, ICT and Public Policy Consultant co-ordinated the reforms through the Ministry of Mass Communication where Minister Imithiaz Bakeer-Marker led the Ministry and the TRC came under his purview.

A notable event that took place was the public auction of radio frequency spectrum to mobile cellular service operators to further modernize the mobile telephone services. Bids were called for the allocation of RF spectrum and millions of dollars were raised. Therefore, governments should note that radio frequency spectrum is public property, should be assigned at the highest possible prices so that the resources of governments will be augmented by billions of dollars.

The then government also set up the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka by enacting enabling legislation in 2003. This new government agency succeeded the Computer Information Technology Council of Sri Lanka (CINTEC) which was the national policy maker and facilitator in ICT upto then.

As s result, the ICTA became the uppermost institution of government mandated to take all necessary steps to develop government policy and action plans in relation to ICT. Since success in ICT relied greatly on having good telecommunication systems and networks, the TRC and the ICTA worked in consultation with each other in most development matters. The writer remembers attending progress review meetings at the ICTA during that time.

This agency was tasked with the formulation and implementation of thee-SRI LANKA development project. The project was used to develop the economy, reduce poverty and improve the quality of life of the people with effective deployment of ICT resources all over the country.

 

2004

The 2004 government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, took more positive and beneficial action to advance ICT . This included the induction of Bharati-Airtel Lanka as another mobile telecommunications service provider. This move ensured a wider choice for the public and ensured further competition in the sector.

With advancements in the Internet, the government recognized the need for a state agency to handle the matter of information security. This was to address cybercrimes and guide state agencies including the Police on how to handle cybercrimes. The ICTA created the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT) to ensure the protection of the information infrastructure. With the advancement of ICT, harassment of computer users, cyber-attacks on websites have increased exponentially. The police, other agencies of government and the general public rely greatly on the SLCERT to solve their cyber related issues. This entity is presently headed by Chairman Lal Dias, a Chartered Information Technology Professional.

 

The Internet (World Wide Web)

In the 1960s the American defence authorities funded work for their internet to provide internal communication amongst multiple computers over a single network. Thereafter, research progressed until the world wide web was launched in 1983 and was made a commercial activity which allowed other countries join the global internet thereafter.

In the 1990s, an initial demonstration for internet access in Sri Lanka was made under a project LEARN i.e. Lanka Experimental Academic & Research Network of the University of Moratuwa when Computer Engineers and academics demonstrated a successful remote log-in from the University of Moratuwa that was connected to a computer at the University of Colombo.

Thereafter, in 1995 LEARN facilitated the joining of academic and research communities to the global internet. Sri Lanka’s first e-mail service too was initiated by the University of Moratuwa. The rest is history.

 

The past and the pioneers

This article would not be complete unless the beginnings ICT and the pioneers associated with it are not mentioned.

The 1960s saw organisations and businesses like the State Engineering Corporation, Central Bank, Insurance Corporation, Petroleum Corporation, AMS Data Services and Walker Sons using large mainframe computers to process their internal tasks. It might be mentioned that each these computers were the size of a room, were comparatively slower and consumed much electricity.

The pioneers who made significant contributions to ICT development such as Prof.V K Samaranayake, Prof.Mohan Munasinghe, Prof.Gihan Dias, Dr. R B Ekanayake, Prof.Abhaya Induruwa, Ms. Nayani Fernando being amongst the many who devoted themselves for the advancement of ICT in Sri Lanka.

The LK Domain registry of Sri Lanka was set up in 1990. This registry has served Sri Lanka as its professional domain registration service and enhanced the development of internet infrastructure for internet. The registry provides the national domain name for Sri Lankan organizations and individuals to create their unique brand identity on the internet with domains such as…..lk, .com.lk, .org.lk and .edu.lk.

 

The JVP and LTTE insurrections

Sri Lanka had two serious insurgencies from1983 to 2009 where telecom exchanges were destroyed and broadcast relay stations were destroyed. However, state and private sector engineers and technicians worked with commitment under trying conditions during these times to restore interrupted services and we appreciate their bravery and commitment.

In conclusion, Sri Lanka has come far in the field of information communication technology but further efforts to develop and regulate the sector in a fair and expeditious manner should be taken to enable all stakeholders to benefit.

(The writer is a former Minister of Science & Technology and a former Director-General, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka)



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Features

BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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