Talks are underway in Sri Lanka on making a suite of subsidized internet services available to everyone in the country via a fleet of high-altitude balloons, timetabled to start offering commercial services through local ISPs by the end of March.
The balloons, which can deliver 10 Mbps access speeds, will be managed by Project Loon, a four-year-old unit within Google’s innovation lab Google X which last month signed an MOU with Sri Lanka’s telecoms advisory body, the ICTA, to blanket the country with broadband.
Google X is now part of Alphabet, a new holding company unveiled this week that separates the internet giant's longer-term projects in areas such as health and transport from Google’s core advertising business.
Meanwhile, the commitment to deploy balloons in Sri Lanka, the first market launch for Project Loon after running tests in remote areas in Australasia and Latin America, represents a dramatic expansion in internet coverage for a nation where only a quarter of the population is online.
The push will be followed by plans to supply low-cost tablets to the island’s unconnected homes. ICTA executives are targeting 70% coverage over the next three years.
In the meantime, technical trials on the balloon-powered broadband network will run for the rest of this year, while the ICTA has started talking to telcos this week on an appropriate service model.
“We want to get the service rolled out to the consumer first, and then allow the platform to be open to anybody else to do what they want to do on top of it,” explains the ICTA’s MD, Muhunthan Canagey.
“This is going to transform the way digital video broadcast is going to take place in this country with more IP-related video offerings that are going to come in,” he adds.
“It is going to transform the entire landscape, bring about digital commerce in areas never dreamt of before. That’s the transformation we want to see.”
The new network will provide free government services in areas such as education, healthcare and financial transactions, in addition to a certain amount, as yet undecided, of free bandwidth to encourage online newcomers to sample other internet services.
There is also scope for companies to bear some or all of the costs of consumer access. It's a move to encourage internet consumption that has sparked fierce argument in the neighboring Indian market on whether key gatekeepers are gaining an unfair advantage as the majority of the population comes online via mobile devices.
Executives at the ICTA, co-ordinating the launch of Sri Lanka's network at both the government and commercial level, are talking to telcos on providing a level playing field for end-users, application providers and telecom companies.
“We are very concerned about how it will be done, but we will offer certain sets of free services for which the application provider is willing to pay for the usage,” Canagey says.
“We are still finalizing the pricing model and the market offering, but you can expect something of that nature.”