“Data traffic increased by 50 percent when the pandemic began last year in March,” said Thirukumar Nadarasa – he is the CEO of Hutchison Telecommunications Lanka. This development caught the telecom industry by surprise but Nadarasa discussed the initiatives the industry as a whole put into place to support consumers during the lockdowns.

He elaborated: “We were not disappointed with the increase in demand. However, 90 percent of our mobile customers have prepaid connections that require them to go out to recharge their phones.”

Solving this problem was necessary, and the solution came in the form of tying up with other open channels such as pharmacies, post offices and door-to-door delivery service providers. Besides this, the industry also offered free airtime and airtime loans with no additional charges, and encouraged internet banking top-ups.

Moving on to the topic of innovation, Nadarasa commented: “5G is a massive technology investment and we consider the economy on five to 10 year horizons – rather than looking at only today’s economy.” Availability of 5G technology is vital to attract foreign investments to accelerate the nation’s economic development as this is an influencing factor that investors look for before establishing their businesses in a new country.

However, this requires digital inclusion – and in fact, it was the theme of Internet Day 2021. “This was an appropriate theme as we’ve been trying to address this issue over the past few years,” remarked Nadarasa.

He added that 50 percent of Sri Lankans do not have access to the internet. “The telecom industry must do its part to help people overcome the digital divide,” he urged. Four international investors in the telecommunications industry are working together to make this a reality by expanding broadband coverage across the country.

To this end, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) initiated Gamata Sanniwedanaya – a project to drive digital inclusion by deploying towers into uneconomic regions so that e-learning and WFH is a possibility for even those who live remotely.

“Affordability is another important factor,” added Nadarasa: “Sri Lanka is among the top 20 countries for the lowest tariffs in the world; yet, this is costly in rural areas.”

He emphasised the need to find innovative solutions to make internet connectivity affordable rather than merely accessible to people.

On the other hand, gen Z (the first generation to have lived its entire life online) is entering the workforce. “The telecommunications industry must facilitate the digital highway to provide affordable and reliable connectivity, to allow gen Z to grow and develop,” Nadarasa urged.

However, is our country truly ready to rise up to this challenge?

VPN provider Surf Shark didn’t seem to think so in its report, which ranked Sri Lanka as the worst among 85 countries for internet quality.

Nadarasa disagreed: “The particular report covered the COVID-19 period of last year – a short-term issue that has clouded the rankings.” He asserted that Sri Lanka’s internet quality is in fact one of the best in the region and therefore, we must await the next edition of the report for a realistic picture of our ranking.

He summed up his views on Sri Lanka as a digital economy and the government’s enthusiasm to push for e-government: “We have the government intent and the human resources; and I also believe that we have the digital infrastructure in place today to really leverage, and let other sectors of the economy digitalise and develop the new digital economy.”

And finally, he observed that people are benefitting from broadband technologies, and 3G and 4G services. “The next course of experience will be the deployment of 5G, which is a faster version of 4G with lower latency,” Nadarasa explained.

He believes that this will spur the development of new technologies and industries in Sri Lanka.