Video interview with Rohan Samarajiva on telecoms in Sri Lanka

A video interview with Rohan Samarajiva, Executive Director of Lirneasia and former Director General of Sri Lanka Telecom on telecoms regulations, disaster mitigation, preparedness and early warning, mobile phone usage at the B.O.P and a number of other technology related issues pertinent to Sri Lanka.

Net Neutrality: Economics and implications for ICT4Peace and ODR

A post on Lirneasia prompted some thought on the linkages between Net Neutrality and peacebuilding, especially the use of the web and Internet for conflict transformation. Lirneasia’s post deals with Obama’s and McCain’s stance on the issue of Net Neutrality, with Chanuka making the point that while theoretically desirable, Net Neutrality has its own significant costs.

A complementary article posted earlier on Lirneasia’s site itself points to an approach by Vint Cerf that provides useful food for thought on the Net Neutrality debate. Cerf’s agrees that broadband networks need to be managed, but he differs with Chanuka (and perhaps Lirneasia) on how. As opposed to usage based billing, Cerf proposes a transmission rate cap where users can “purchase access to the Internet at a given minimum data rate and be free to transfer data at at least up to that rate in any way they wish.” (Cerf’s original post on Google which fleshes this idea out can be read here). 

My concern here is with the appropriation of the Net Neutrality debate by ISPs – both State and Private – under repressive regimes to covertly clamp down on communications used by human rights defenders and peace activists. 

For example, I have been reliably told, though not verified, that a well-known ISP in Sri Lanka (not SLT) is blocking P2P traffic, including Skype. This creates significant problems for some HR org’s and activists on it who use Skype to communicate and collaborate securely. Ironically, some actually switched over to this ISP from SLT because they thought it afforded greater security and Quality of Service. EFF’s Switzerland tool, if Lirneasia or any other organisation ever get around to using it in SL, may offer some insight in this regard.

The point is quite simply this – net neutrality is not just about the minimum or maximum transmission rates, but about the way IP packets on a broadband pipe are managed. If ISPs, under their own misguided policies or those covertly imposed by a repressive regime begin to selectively prioritise and monitor traffic on their networks, it forces those who use the Internet for highly sensitive communications and advocacy to re-think the tools and services they access, and how. And sometimes, there’s no other option for tools used by HR defenders – as in the case of Skype. Despite recent concerns over privacy, there is no other encrypted, free and widely used VOIP tool. And once you start going down this path, it soon becomes clear that traffic discrimination can selectively target other tools, web services and platforms used by HR defenders against a regime to capture, generate, disseminate and archive inconvenient truths – such as human rights abuses. This includes video streaming sites like YouTube.

A final word on economics. As Ars Technica notes,

As unattended apps like P2P and network backup utilities tie up a portion of bandwidth for ever longer periods of time, the old solutions aren’t working as well and congestion is one result. Cerf’s idea would take us back to the old “circuit-switched” days in the sense that each Internet user would instead get a guaranteed line with a minimum guaranteed rate at all times. This would answer consumer complaints about “not getting what I paid for,” but would cost ISPs more cash.

Emphasis mine. Lirneasia’s research in Sri Lanka suggest deplorable QoS across all “broadband” ISPs. Not a single ISP in Sri Lanka guarantees minimum transmission speeds and often advertise speeds that paying customers simply don’t get, or even come close to. Convincing them to upgrade their networks to go down the path Cerf suggest may be impossible, given how enticing the economics of a metered data transmission model looks and sounds, on paper. 

The problem of course is that this doesn’t address the problem of pissant data rates for all. A pay-for-megabyte model will see that though the heaviest users pay up (corporate consumers) and the economic disincentive for individuals to become high volume users will simply not be enough to improve transmission speeds (particularly if, as I suspect, our ISPs will do little or nothing to improve network capacity). The net result will quite simply be more or less the same old, glacial data transfer rates which will anger even more those who can are willing to pay more (like myself) for better connectivity. 

There’s one ISP in the UK offering something I’ve not seen anywhere else – a meaningful IP traffic prioritisation / management plan. It’s from Plusnet. Check it out here. Their explanation uses the same metaphor as Chanuka uses in his Lirneasia post,

Think of it this way, the broadband network is like a motorway. When the traffic is light, all vehicles can move at the national speed-limit. Some lanes of the motorway have been reserved for important traffic, such as buses or emergency vehicles. During rush hour, most vehicles are forced to slow down. However, the traffic on the reserved lanes can continue to travel at their full speed.

Google itself has promised a tool that helps end-users / consumers to see how ISPs manage traffic. No date for the release of the tool, but a more user friendly Switzerland or Google’s tool would be a huge asset for those of us who use the Internet for peacebuilding and ODR, if only to see which ISP we should avoid.

Update – 5 September 2008

Comcast, the cable operator and ISP in the US at the centre of the Net Neutrality debate, has sued the FCC over a decision it made on Comcast’s network management techniques. Ars Technica has the story here.

Keep tabs on your ISP’s quality of service through Switzerland

Not the country, but the programme created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As the EFF website notes, 

Developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Switzerland is an open source software tool for testing the integrity of data communications over networks, ISPs and firewalls. It will spot IP packets which are forged or modified between clients, inform you, and give you copies of the modified packets.

The raison d’etre of Switzerland is explained in this document, though the programme is far too geeky to be of any use to the majority of consumers. However, Switzerland seems to have beaten Google in providing tools to keep tabs on their ISPs. 

I wonder whether the integration of Switzerland (or comparable tool) to check for network neutrality / interference by ISPs in Sri Lanka would be useful to incorporate in the next iteration of Lirneasia’s Ashoka-Tissa broadband Quality of Service testing.

I have repeatedly heard that some leading ISPs in Sri Lanka who promote WiMax and their own VoIP telephony heavily are throttling torrents and Skype VoIP, but there’s no way to debunk or prove these allegations unless serious third party testing takes place.

Any takers?

Sahana SMS Module – Thoughts and suggestions

I was invited by Lirneasia to a presentation on Sahana’s new SMS module yesterday. Lara’s live blogging of the event is available here. The module works well and looks nice and is particularly well suited for sending early warning messages to the disaster response network of Sarvodaya around Sri Lanka (there’s an acronym for this that I can’t remember). Scalability of the module to deal with a larger constituency (thousands of journalists and millions of citizens) is very suspect, but that’s not what it was designed for. As was explained to us, it’s also a problem of the sequential nature of sending SMSs out from the system.

But as was noted, no tests to date have been made on the actual performance of the system that for the moment runs on Dialog. My experience with SMS communications last year after a bombing close to home suggests that SMS is also prone to congestion that can last for hours, though a technical agreement with Dialog may possibly address this by prioritising message delivery for a specific set of numbers.

Cost was whatever the cost of sending an SMS within or through the Dialog network. It was clear that setting up this module needed to be done in consultation with (or at the very least, adequate notification given to) the mobile telecoms provider it used for message delivery. Else, as was pointed out, warning messages to hundreds could easily be shut down by automated SMS spam guards, which would defeat the purpose of the system.

One suggestion I had was to simplify their three character survey response code. My suggestion was to limit the characters to the first key press of a mobile keypad (a,d, g, j, m, p, t, w and *, 0 # if necessary) since multiple key presses to get to the other letters could lead to, particularly when also dealing with a chaotic context, high levels of stress and possibly sleep depravation, higher levels of error in input. 

The suggestion was also made to made the UI a bit more like Twitter, with notification of how many characters had been used in a message and how many there were left. 

It would also be necessary for Sahana to encourage the best practice of the most urgent numbers at the top of any group list, given the sequential nature of SMS delivery, ensuring that they got the message first. It would be useful then to also encourage the creation of groups based on geo-location – so that say in the case of a tsunami alert, disaster responders along the coastal belt most likely to be affected could be alerted as first and then others. Extrapolating key numbers from a group that contained a whole bunch of numbers at the time of sending the message out would be next to impossible. 

It would be interesting to see if the Government Information Dept. or National Disaster Management Centre takes this up as a means of communicating disaster early warning and subsequent information to journalists and other key actors. A key conversation in this regard was facilitated by an article of Chamath Ariyadasa from JNW news on Groundviews, well worth reading even today.

One feature I would like to see in the Sahana SMS module is an automated keyword response mechanism, akin to what FrontlineSMS already has. For example, someone in the field types “emc colombo” which could be a short-code understood by the system as a request for emergency contacts for that particular location / district / GN division. Those managing the module would be responsible for updating responses with current information. So in this example, “emc colombo” could result in as SMS like “N.D. Hettiarachchi,, +94112431590 T, +94112431593 F”.

It would be interesting if the system actually logged the delivery time of messages to the extent made possible by delivery receipts with Dialog and Mobitel (maybe with Tigo too). It would be interesting to get a a baseline on a normal day (a dry run of the system with Sarvodaya’s network) and another during an actual disaster warning / early response context to compare how the system deals with stress placed on it and on the larger mobile network. 

I wonder if Sahana can and will provide this module as a web service delinked from the larger Sahana system? I can see far broader applications for this than disaster early warning and a web services approach or at worst a thin client approach would allow it to be used by those who don’t necessarily want or need the full blown Sahana system. 

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…

Blogging in UNICODE Sinhala in Sri Lanka

There’s an interesting debate on about the merits of blogging in Sinhala, brought about by Apramana’s Sinhala Blog Marathon. The two central issues of contention are whether blogs in Sinhala capture enough of an audience to be monetised and whether UNICODE is a viable means of writing and reading content in Sinhala online.

The former issue is one that has been debated at incredible length on Lirneasia’s blog, among other places. Rumblinglankan’s post on the other hand, questions the viability of Sinhala blogging because of its abysmal readership. It’s also a post that got some interesting comments by those who feel, as I strongly do, that it is vital to encourage and strengthen blogging in the swabhasha.

Vikalpa gets around 263 pageviews a day. For a site that is entirely in UNICODE, that’s not half bad in comparison to the traffic on other blogs located in Sri Lanka (Groundviews gets around 700 page views a day on average).

The concerns about the installation of UNICODE fonts on Windows XP aside, Rumblinglankan’s contention that UNICODE Sinhala is still not ready for mainstream blogging is different to my personal experience. On the installation front, I agree that things could be better. Though I’ve never had a problem in the installation of UNICODE fonts, many I know including experienced journalists who are proficient in using PCs, have. We also often get complaints from users who have not installed UNICODE on their computers that all they see on their screens is gibberish (easily solved by emailing them with a pointer to the site’s Font Installation help page). I’ve been told repeatedly that UNICODE is annoyingly dissimilar to what many touch typists in Sinhala have learnt as the keyboard mapping in non-UNICODE fonts. There are also some other font rendering issues that have cropped up in our work, having used UNICODE exclusively and extensively on Vikalpa and the University of Colombo’s excellent UNICODE conversion tools. In sum, it’s easier to view UNICODE Sinhala fonts than to enter them. And the fact that they simply don’t display accurately on Macs is a bloody annoyance, but thankfully Bootcamp or Parallels come in handy here. The ICTA UNICODE enabling pack works fine on both.

I tend to agree with Indi’s comments in Rumblinglankan’s post that if we don’t begin to produce and promote Sinhala content, we’ll never have enough impetus to get more people blogging and online. Blogging in Sinhala is not always about or pegged to the ability to monetise content. The growth of Sinhala blogs on Kottu over the past year along is testimony that more and more people are blogging in general, and blogging in Sinhala in particular (and Kottu does not aggregate all blogs in and on Sri Lanka). Hyper-local media in Sri Lanka will not be based on English. Though traditional media forays on to the web still, by and large, do not use UNICODE when publishing content in Sinhala / Tamil, I see the transition to it as inevitable.

For example, Vikalpa attracts a fair bit of traffic from the diaspora – we can only assume that there is a significant audience out of Sri Lanka who do read content in Sinhala and in fact, in the case of Vikalpa, look out for content sadly not to be found in the Fourth Estate.

Personally, the most compelling reason to go with Sinhala / Tamil UNICODE on Vikalpa was that content thus entered could be searched for and accessed through Google, Live, Yahoo and the like. Vikalpa is designed to be a record of alternative viewpoints for posterity and UNICODE made the content as accessible and future proof as possible.

As an aside, it’s interesting in this regard to note the growth of the Sinhala and Tamil SMS applications and services on mobile phones in Sri Lanka, pioneered largely by the thought-leadership and technical prowess of Microimage. However, while the Groundviews Mobile attracts around a 100 page views a day, the Vikalpa mobile site that I created using the same technology worked perfectly on my mobile phone bought in Sri Lanka from Softlogic but did not on more sophisticated N-series phones bought abroad. I can only guess that the Nokia phones Softlogic sells in Sri Lanka, with their built in Sinhala character-set, support UNICODE Sinhala font rendering through the phone’s built in browser whereas phones outside of Sri Lanka obviously don’t. (Which begs the question, is there a software upgrade for Nokia’s that Softlogic can do to make them render Sinhala fonts?)