Tamilnet.com unblocked again. Sort of.

Tamilnet was opened up, then blocked again and has now been opened up again via some connections on some ISPs.

Tamilnet.com has been accessible from SLT’s ADSL connections for around five or six days from the last time it was blocked. To date, you cannot access the site from Dialog’s WiMax connections. Bizarrely though, I can access the site via Dialog 3G on my Blackberry Bold.

There must be some method to this madness, but I just can’t figure it out. Also curious is that the German version of the site, which is regularly updated with content translated from the English version, was NEVER blocked from any ISP in Sri Lanka.

Hometown Baghdad and a similar idea for Sri Lanka

It’s not the first time that I’ve written here on the power of video to transform conflict, facilitate reconciliation and highlight insights and facets to war not often covered by traditional media. I guess the most well known of exercises in recent times was by Kevin Sikes and his compelling work with Yahoo to document life in conflict zones. There is also the example of Videoletters, the website of which sadly does not exist anymore (another write up of the erstwhile initiative can be found here). The WITNESS Video Hub is yet another example. And in Sri Lanka, I’ve pioneered the Vikalpa Video Channel, that’s already got tens of thousands of views.

Its in this vein that I was happy to come across, admittedly rather late in the day, Hometown Baghdad that is an “online web series about life in Baghdad. It tells the stories of three young Iraqis struggling to survive during the war”.

The videos, all online but not downloadable, are really interesting to watch – even though on my ADSL connection, they were really choppy. As noted in the Guardian review of the initiative and the videos:

In contrast to mainstream media reports, the short clips – a mixture of home-made diaries and professionally- shot footage – offer viewers an alternative Iraqi reality, as the trio confront the everyday challenges posed by living in Baghdad amid spiralling sectarian violence last summer.

Sadly, the three key voices from the ground are all male – it would have been interesting to see what a female, of a similar age and middle-class background, would have brought to the commentary and perspectives offered by the videos.

An idea for Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, Dialog was the first to create a mobile phone based video competition.

MoFilms

While extremely commendable for raising the awareness of the potential for user generated content through mobiles in Sri Lanka (and some neat guidelines), the content generated by this competition would have been largely limited to an English speaking audience, if only to first comprehend understand the legal argot of the Rules and Regulations published only in English.

Here’s the challenge. No corporate entity is going to be interested in a competition that strengthens the type of content Hometown Baghdad is about or even what Vikalpa Video today generates. There are media houses in Sri Lanka that do some interesting terrestrial broadcasts in a similar vein, but their impact is minimal at best. Further, as I’ve noted earlier, the problem with these productions is that they are hidden – once broadcast, there is no way to access them.

Which agency I wonder, and here I’m thinking perhaps of the marketing and advertising community, can step up to a competition on vital and challenging issues such as corruption, human rights, language rights and local government that asks citizens to record through their mobiles phones what they experience? A combination of SMS, MMS and mobile video could be used, with web, mobile and print media used and in all three languages.

We need to emphasise the good as well as the bad, so the competition could be in two parts or have two prizes – one for the best video that highlights an aspect of say governance that actually works (and there are hugely under-recognised public servants out there committed to public service), the other for weak or failed governance mechanisms.

If anyone is up to the task, call me!

The State of “Broadband” in Sri Lanka – Take 1

Lirneasia’s come out with preliminary test results of the Quality of Service of three of the most widely used broadband packages in Sri Lanka, SLT Office (2 Mbps / 512 kbps), SLT Home (512 kbps / 128 kbps) and Dialog (2 Mbps / 512 kbps). (With Dialog, I’m not sure what exactly they tested (Dynamic or Static IP package) and whether this makes a difference.)

I’ve touched base with Lirneasia off and on broadband speeds in Sri Lanka as well as in other countries and it’s good to finally see a rigorous, impartial and insightful study in this vexed and vexing issue.

The preliminary results of the survey are available here. For me the greatest eye-opener was the lack of any discernible difference between the SLT Home and Business packages. Actually, it’s what I suspected for a long time after upgrading from the Home to the Business package around a year ago at a significant difference in cost monthly for no appreciable improvement in the quality of data transfers I got on average.

The notice of the presentation that Lirneasia sent around had two representatives from SLT and Dialog who were supposed to be on the panel as respondents, but the post on the event does not record their participation or their reactions and responses.

I have little experience with Dialog’s broadband solutions save for marketing campaigns really did jump the gun on promising connectivity that their implementation of Wimax simply could not match. Incidentally however, the best downloads I’ve got in Sri Lanka have been at Kandalama Hotel which I believe is on some sort of Dialog wireless connection (wimax or HSPA) late last year. I’ve never even come close to those speeds using ADSL or HSPA at any time of day on any day.

It will be interesting to see future iterations of this survey that look into HSDPA / HSPA solutions from SLT / Mobitel and Dialog. Having got a HSPA 3.5G connection from Mobitel a while ago, I’m happy to report that I am far more happy with the QoS on it than with my Business ADSL connection (just tested the download rate and it’s 93.3kbps at 5.30pm on a Wednesday. Would have compared to SLT ADSL, but see below). I’ve not run any robust tests, but from using it quite a bit when I’m travelling and also at peak time, the speeds I get for uploads and downloads are again certainly not near to what’s advertised or what the Mobitel Sales Rep told me they would be, but are a damn sight better than ADSL.

Office got a Dialog HSDPA connection (it’s the same Huawei USB modem as mine) for our mobile citizen journlism work with Vikalpa in particular, yet they seem far less happy with it than I am with mine from Mobitel.

But at the end of the day, wireless connectivity depends on the same backend network infrastructure as wired / ADSL connections, which raises the question as to just why the Mobitel HSPA QoS is markedly better than SLT ADSL connectivity. Perhaps it is an issue of saturation?

It may be just coincidence, but I’ve also noticed far more ADSL outages in the past two weeks. My ADSL connection in Nugegoda has got very unreliable and at the time of writing this, ADSL services are out for Colombo 7, Wellawatte and some other areas in Colombo. Office tells me that this now happens quite regularly. Either SLT is upgrading something somewhere or their QoS is just getting worse. Hope it is the former.

The picture I get from all this is that things are not as bad as I assumed they would be. However, that’s small comfort for those of us who have been paying significant more for an SLT ADSL package for a QoS that’s overall no better than or equal to a Home package.  For my work, what’s revealing from these preliminary results is that there is really no option at present than to stick with my ADSL connection (I may downgrade back to the Home package) and my HSPA connection, for which I pay a small fortune at the end of the month. Is it too much to really expect telcos to provide what they promise? And when the final results are published, I wonder whether consumers can take legal action against telcos for not providing what they promise and actually state in their marketing campaigns?

A final thanks to Chanuka from Lirneasia who has kindly included my name in his presentation. Lirneasia’s work (in particular their BOP research, on which I have still to write on in this blog) has helped me more than any other organisation to justify my on-going work with citizen journalism and new media as a means through which one can strengthen democratic governance, peace and fundamental rights. Years ago I began work on ICT4Peace with the hunch that mobile devices / phones would change the way in which citizens communicate with governance and governance mechanisms in the swabhasha, and that wireless internet access / cloud computing and diminishing costs of access would make them producers of content instead of passive recipients and consumers of content dished out to them by e-government initiatives with a downstream emphasis. It’s heartening to see research from Lirneasia supporting the validity of these early assumptions and my continuing work in ICT and peacebuilding.

Now if I only could just bloody get a decent connection to download that gargantuan Vista Service Pack…

“Broadband” in Sri Lanka – Where the gremlins reside

ADSL

That’s a photo of where I get my SLT ADSL from. It chokes. It splutters. It dies.

But just when I was about to write this post and in the background decided to download a Top Gear episode, it magically just sprang to life.

Downloads

219Kb/s sustained for 20 minutes. Phew.

It’s not the first time my ADSL connection, of its own accord, decided to live up to what it is advertised as. Or at least something closer to it than the pissant data rate I usually get on it.

It was partly because my ADSL connection was so bad (and I’m on a business package) that I spent a small fortune and bought a HSPA 3G modem with Mobitel. Average speeds on it are much better than ADSL. And when ADSL simply gives up and dies during peak times, the 3G connection just keeps going.

What’s not so great is the measly 1.5Gb combined upload plus download package I’m on. Honestly, I usually go through that kind of data a day using my ADSL when I’m doing some multimedia work on the web.

The fact is, I pay a ridiculous amount of money a month for broadband packages that simply don’t work as advertised.  And that, whichever way you cut it, is just bull shit. The same bull shit one encounters on SLT’s broadband helpline, which asks to download an old Eudora programme from http://www.sltnet.lk and then says that if the speeds are ok from there, everything else is ok. Anything international, and apparently the copper in my Japanese junction box becomes the problem. Or some virus.

When I tell them I am on a Mac, the fun starts:

“Yes yes. Apple very good. But must be something running on background no? You have virus? No? Ah, no virus on Apple. Yes yes. Not like XP no? Ha ha. Did you try opening Eudora.exe? No, must work no? No? Not work? Did you click? Mac no – yes. Very good Apple. No exe. Yes. Ha ha. I forgot. Sorry. Must be with system then. Drivers? Did you restart? Ah. Ok. Did you restart? Ah. Ok. [Pause] Where you buy? Go ask? SLT ADSL no problem. Thank you.”

As for Dialog, the less said the better, though one does notice that they’ve changed their marketing spiel to describe Wimax speeds that now go as “up to {whatever speed}” in their recent ads.

Hopefully Lirneasia’s got some more answers to these issues.  Can’t wait.

The telling lack of timely SMS news alerts on the arrest and detention of Tamils

Writing on the arrest and detention of hundreds of Tamils in the South of Sri Lanka, Ange in an article published on Groundviews had a very interesting observation on SMS based news services in Sri Lanka at a time such as this:

I wonder at the comfortable ignorance the majority of us enjoy being in. We don’t want to be perceived as “not in the in” so we have cable TV, maybe an internet connection or maybe even a subscription to receive news alerts so that we have access to news from all over the world. But we don’t seem too perturbed by the fact that maybe something is happening right under our noses. We don’t mind that we may be the last ones to know. Some of us even don’t mind never knowing at all.

After my news alerts facility became a paid one, I thought I’d not think too much about the cost (in addition to all the other levies etc on my phone bill) and keep it as it would be useful to be in the loop. But as a paying customer I feel slightly let down that I was not informed and instead was made to look like a fool when my friend asked me if I had not heard [about the detentions]. I’m seriously considering unsubscribing and I’m miffed that I didn’t save the details of how one should go about doing so.

I wrote an SMS to JNW (Sri Lanka’s first SMS news service and in my opinion, though struggling to compete with new services on Mobitel and Dialog, still the most useful) just before I wrote this post:

Good morning! Have not received any news of the on going arrests of Tamils. Did you send an alert? It is supposed to be over 1500 according to one web news report I read this morning. Did you send one I missed? This is news! 

JNW’s reponse was that they were working on a story and would have it out soon. I’ll bet that once JNW comes out with it, Ada Derana and Lankapuwath on Mobitel may follow with similar SMS alerts of their own, but will never be the first to run with this story.

Dialog: Listening to customers?

I first expressed reservations about Dialog’s recently introduced WiMax service on Lirneasia’s blog, which has some interesting responses after my comment that call in general for a more rigorous study of the Quality of Service of “broadband” service providers in Sri Lanka (that I seem to recall Lirneasia was interested in doing, though I may be wrong).

Later, I wrote a post based on a letter I wrote to Dialog that brought out in detail the gross disconnect between what was then promised in the media blitz surrounding their WiMax campaign and what I many others, it turns out, experienced in areas that were ostensibly “covered”.

I’m happy to note that as of this week, the ads I’ve seen on Wimax (in the Daily Mirror) have added a new line that clearly indicates that connectivity is subject to site tests even in areas that are “covered”. As I wrote to Dialog’s Head of Marketing via SMS:

Note with appreciation the caveat introduced in the wimax ads now, that access is subject to testing in each location. I think this is honest and instructive and only wish you had gone with this in the first instance. Thank you and best, Sanjana”

to which his response was:

“Thanks. As I said before we are an organization who listens to the pulse of the customers as much as we can. We always appreciate honest and direct feedback. Thank you once again.”

Though I am STILL waiting to be blown away by Dialog’s Wimax speeds, it’s heartening to note that someone listens to feedback at Dialog.

Dialog’s customer support, however, is another story and perhaps warrants another post (though I’m waiting to see if anything improves as a result of a letter I sent to them before going public). But a heads up to anyone from Dialog who reads this – your stock email response, which is rather inane because it is sent out unthinkingly by customer service reps irrespective of the precise nature of the issue brought to their notice, is not just factually incorrect (as was the case with the response I got) but also grammatically incorrect.

And I for one think it’s rather perverse to actually be charged for a phone call made to a service centre.

Clearly, exponential growth in market share has its own trappings.

Reuters breaking news alerts no more on Dialog

Dialog Reuters

Seems that Reuters has pulled out of offering SMS news alerts and information bulletins through Dialog.

Dialog is now advertising Ada Derana, from the TV station Derana, as a replacement though to date, I’ve received many SMS’s from Ada Derana asking me to await breaking news alerts, none have been forthcoming.

The last I reviewed Reuters and Sri Lanka’s first SMS based news alerts service, JasmineNewswires, was when they both reported an incident in  Yala National Park.

Rumour has it that there was a question of censorship involved in Reuters decision to pull out of offering breaking news alerts through Dialog.

If true, and given that telcos in Sri Lanka covertly support the censorship of news and information, the implications are quite disturbing for mobiles as a vehicle of dialogues (no pun intended) that critique propaganda and offer alternative perspectives on war and conflict.