Provision of free Wi-Fi facilities, fairly distributed over the island, both in urban and rural areas, will ceremonially begin at the Colombo Fort railway station on Monday 30, March 2015 with the participation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, Mangala Samaraweera, Minister of External Affairs, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Minister of Internal Transport and Ajith P. Perera, Deputy Minister of External Affairs.
The facility will be simultaneously made available at around 20 more locations including railway stations, public libraries, hospitals and other public places in Jaffna, Kandy, Matara, Galle, Polonnaruwa and Ratnapura. These are the premier locations to be powered with free Wi-Fi in the first round of a map of 1,000 locations.
The objective of this program is to provide free Internet access for Sri Lankan citizens empowering them with the global knowledge in the digital age. It will also engage citizens in policy making of the government and contributing towards good governance. Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) spearheads this project, with the able assistance of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) and the local telecom service providers.
The election manifesto of the President Maithripala Sirisena, ‘Compassionate Government – A Stable Country’, under section 11 ‘A meaningful substantial media freedom’, states: “To enrich the citizens of the country with important information, knowledge necessary for life and advanced cultural enjoyment, mass media has been active in submerging him/her in simple commercial pleasures. Matters worth attention and that should reach the attention of society are hidden and trivial matters without substance are highlighted in the media. Therefore, it is proposed to establish Wi-Fi zones at public places in all towns to supply free Internet facilities.”
ICTA earlier stated this was more than a mere fulfillment of an election pledge. Free Wi-Fi is offered because government understands free and unrestricted Internet access is more a fundamental right. The citizens from all walks of life and from different parts of the country will now benefit from the Free-Wi-Fi program.
Sri Lanka will be one the first countries in South Asia to take such initiatives and be able to deploy it in such a short time.
ICTA further says that ‘Free Wi-Fi’ should not be taken as a ‘Free lunch’. It is not a subsidy. The cost of providing the facility will not be passed on to the treasury or telecom companies. Instead free Wi-Fi is offered as a part of a feasible business model. Investments made by operators will be justified by the earnings of the developments. The telecom operators have already agreed to provide free 100 MB volume of internet data monthly per citizen at 512 Kbps bandwidth. They will invest on all required infrastructure to establish 1,000 hotspots and manage same. While most locations are already confirmed, the rest will be selected from a list of 1,300 locations ICTA has prepared.
Chithrangani Mubarak, Chairperson of ICTA states: “It is wonderful to note that social unity among the public and private sector has enabled ICTA to fulfill one its key objective of ICT penetration in the country. I am amazed as to how such a large-scale implementation can be achieved in such a short time. This clearly shows that the true benefit of this partnership to deliver such services was unimaginable before. I take this opportunity to thank all the stakeholders on this project”
Muhunthan Canagey CEO of ICTA says: “It was an ambitious dream for ICTA to spearhead such a telecom roll out within a period of 60 to 90 days. The telecom operators, along with the team at ICTA and TRC were able to drive such an ambitious and dynamic initiative”
There were many technical and interoperability that needed to be finalized between all telecom operators, however the spirit of all parties were positive which enabled ICTA to deliver more than the promise made by the government at the last election.
Muhunthan Canagey further adds that there were many factors other than technical and policy that needed to be considered, such as selection of locations where most public will find it convenient to use. The consensus were reached by the teams that the locations shall include all state universities, limited professional education institutions, all railway stations, central bus stands, district secretariat, A grade base hospitals, public parks, public libraries, museums and limited Government offices and district secretariats will provide free Wi-Fi facilities. The distribution of ‘free Wi-Fi’ locations shall be proportionately distributed across all districts.
Concerns have already been raised about the free limit of 100 MB. While it might be not much for a PC user, more than half of the mobile users in Sri Lanka typically use less than this amount per month. Another technical difficulty in offering more is the difficulty in determining the usage patterns and how that will change the operator networks. So 100 MB will only be the starting point. ICTA plans to review this limit after analyzing the usage for few months. ICTA also thinks the limit should not be uniform and can change depending upon the requirements. For example, a rural location that needs more assistance can be given a higher limit than what is offered at an urban location.
ICTA also says the project goes far beyond offering free Wi-Fi. Even if the ‘free’ part is completely forgotten it is having 1,000 more Wi-Fi hot spots at otherwise commercially non-viable locations. Wi-Fi offers broadband access at half of the cost otherwise. Even without the free offering Wi-Fi can reduce the cost of 1 GB to less than Rs. 100. So, even an advanced user can maintain the broadband bill within a lower value by shifting to Wi-Fi. This trend is already seen in the developed countries.
The first free Wi-Fi 25 locations include the railway stations of Colombo Fort, Jaffna, Matara, Polonnaruwa, Kandy, Peradeniya, Galle; bus stands at Pettah and Matara; public libraries of Colombo and Jaffna; hospitals of Polonnaruwa and Karapitiya and museums of Colombo and Ratnapura. In addition the facility will be simultaneously opened at several locations including Katunayake Airport, Police Headquarters in Colombo, Dutch Hospital and Galle face areas in Colombo, Foreign Employment Bureau at Battaramulla and Dehiwala zoological gardens. These locations are just symbolical and indicate at what categories of locations the facility will be available in future.
The Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka is the apex ICT institution of the Government. In terms of the Information and Communication Technology Act No. 27 of 2003 (ICT Act) ICTA has been mandated to take all necessary measures to implement the Government’s Policy and Action Plan in relation to ICT. In terms of section 6 of the ICT Act, ICTA is required to assist the Cabinet of Ministers in the formulation of the National Policy on ICT and provide all information necessary for its formulation. ICTA is wholly owned by the Government of Sri Lanka.