How connected is Sri Lanka today?

Online/Offline Column By Nalaka Gunawardene

How many people worldwide use the internet?

It depends on who counts and how, and estimates vary. International Telecommunications Union (ITU), part of the UN system, says that at the end of 2018, 51.2% of the world population (around 3.9 billion people), were online.

Others cite higher numbers. We Are Social, an analyst group that tracks digital society trends, says the number stood at 4.4 billion (or 57% of humanity) by end 2018 – and “more than one million people coming online for the first time each day since January 2018”.

What do these aggregate numbers really mean? Do all who have access use it regularly? What do people use it for – work, studies, leisure, or something more contentious like duping themselves or spreading hate? Do men and women behave differently when they get online?

Answers to many of these are found not at the composite bigger picture but at lower, different levels of granularity. To use a digital metaphor, to understand what happens after people gain access to internet, we need to zoom into the pixel level.

UN agencies that typically view and discuss global issues from 33,000 feet above, often miss these myriads of small picture details. But the pixels matter for individuals, tech companies, and governments all alike. While both the bird’s and toad’s eye views have merit, the latter is essential in addressing problems of development and equality.

Since 2005, the Colombo-anchored think tank LIRNEasia has been conducting demand side research on how people access and use information and communications technologies or ICTs in emerging economies across Asia.

Probing demand side

Demand side studies collate and analyse information and opinions from customers or end users of a technology or service, as opposed to analysis of data from suppliers or vendors (supply side research). Asking users and collating their answers can reveal insights that otherwise remain hidden. And because LIRNEasia’s surveys use large samples on a nationally representative basis, their findings have wide ranging policy implications.

Starting in 2005, LIRNEasia pioneered a unique series of demand side studies on ICT use in Asia. Known as teleuse at the bottom of the pyramid, it was one of the first large regional studies to assess demand for ICT services among emerging Asia’s lower income groups.

Conducted at a time when tens of millions of Asians were becoming first-time owners of mobile phones at a faster rate than ever before, these studies revealed many utilitarian, social, and personal uses enabled by the combination of low-cost instruments and affordable tariff packages. These studies helped understand variations of the “budget telecom model” in countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

A dozen years on, both the technologies and markets have evolved. Voice calls still matter but text messaging or SMS have given way to chat apps and social media. Cheaper yet more versatile smartphones have become the convergence device, combining functions of cameras, voice recorders, computers, calculators, and watches.

How does the spread of smartphones with internet connectivity affect the way people consume – and increasingly, generate – news and views? What barriers still remain, and who is lagging or left behind?

AfterAccess is a global research effort to understand these processes at individual, household, and small/micro-enterprise levels. LIRNEasia leads the studies in Asia while its counterparts, Research ICT Africa and DIRSI (Dialogo Regional sobre Sociedad de la Informacion), are conducting the studies in Africa and Latin America respectively. Details at: https://afteraccess.net

The surveys conducted so far in 23 countries across the Global South – seven in Asia, 10 in Africa, and six in Latin America – have generated the most comprehensive database on mobile phone and internet access and use in the developing societies or emerging economies. (The Asian countries covered are Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka). All surveys are nationally representative and use a methodology that is comparable across the full range of the data.

AfterAccess Sri Lanka

The Sri Lanka survey covered 2,017 households from 100 grama niladhari divisions (the smallest unit in public administration) spread in all nine provinces. The findings were presented at a Colombo event on 22 May 2019 by LIRNEasia’s CEO Helani Galpaya, Research Manager Ayesha Zainudeen and statistician Tharaka Amarasinghe. The Minister of Digital Infrastructure, senior government officials, and industry leaders participated and discussed the findings.

AfterAccess Sri Lanka has generated some fascinating insights into what we could only speculate about or guesstimate until now. And they raise new questions that need further study and discussion.

Two headline findings stand out. First, Sri Lanka does not perform as well as expected, on key digital indicators. Second, awareness of internet and related services does not yet translate to actual use.

Before considering internet use, let us look at access to phones, which in Sri Lanka overwhelmingly means mobile phones. We have come a long way since mobile services were introduced 30 years ago in June 1989.

Among those surveyed in the age range of 15 to 65, just over three quarters (78%) owned a mobile phone, i.e. having an active mobile SIM and a device.

It is impossible to track how many mobiles are in use, but the last updated supply side statistics from the Telecom Regulatory Commission shows there were 32,528,104 active SIMs in use by December 2018 – which meant 150 SIMs for every 100 persons in the country. (Source: http://bit.ly/TRCSLData)
The total active SIMs first exceeded total inhabitants around 2012/13, and that is due to some owning more than one SIM at a time (32% of AfterAccess respondents). This is perfectly legal, although most multiple users did not opt for more than two SIMs. (Interestingly, 25% of the non mobile owners also said they had active SIMs.)

Sri Lanka’s overall mobile phone ownership percentage placed it higher than its South Asian neighbours, and on par with economic peers such as Argentina (91%), Ecuador (84%), and Guatemala (88%). This means countries with comparable gross national incomes per capita (in purchasing power parity or PPP terms), which for Sri Lanka was $ 11,347.92 in 2017.

What about disparities in access? Some development activists citing years-old data keep talking about a big digital divide, but the contours of access and use have been changing. AfterAccess reveals only a very small urban-rural gap in mobile phone ownership (9%) in Sri Lanka: 84% urban and 77% rural residents own mobiles. Similar small gaps were found in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well.

More pronounced is the gender gap: women in Sri Lanka are 17% less likely to own a mobile compared to men. Among the countries studied, this gender gap in mobile ownership is highest in India (46%), followed, in Asia, by Pakistan (37%), Bangladesh (34%), Myanmar (28%), Cambodia (20%), and Nepal (19%).
Sri Lanka’s gender gap might seem low in comparison, but we still can do better as our income peers are doing already. In fact, Argentina, Colombia, South Africa, and Ecuador having either zero or minus gender gaps (meaning more women own phones than men).

“Gender inequality in mobile phone ownership remained a problem in much of Asia and Africa,” says the study report.

Different phone types

Not all mobile phones are equal, and neither are their users. Many of us who have been using mobiles for over two decades have gone from basic phones (the only choice in the 1990s) to feature phones and then smartphones. All three kinds are still on the market, catering to different types of owners and users.

In the Asian countries surveyed, mobile phone markets are still dominated by basic handsets for voice calls and texting, with no (or very limited) internet access capability. A feature phone, in comparison, has additional capabilities for multimedia (such as photos and music) and internet browsing.

To be called a smartphone, however, the instrument must use an operating system such as Android or iOS through which third party “apps” could be run on it, usually with a touch screen covering at least 75% of its front area. All smartphones can access the internet.

Only 47% of mobile owners in Sri Lanka currently have smartphones. Another 7% had feature phones while the rest (46%) owned basic phones. Across the three regions, some Latin American countries lead in the share of smartphones among mobile users. More urban residents own smartphones in Sri Lanka (53% of all urban), but these gadgets are spreading fast: 45% of all rural users also have one.

Averaged across the sample, mobile owners spend $ 5.30 (around Rs. 935 including taxes), based on the combined cost incurred for voice, SMS, and data in the month preceding the survey. Users in other surveyed Asian countries pay less, but those in Kenya, South Africa, and several Latin American countries pay more.

Those who said they didn’t own a phone (408 in the Sri Lanka sample) were asked why (with multiple answers allowed). “Not needing one” (58%) was the most heard answer, followed by “cannot afford” (28%) and “not allowed to own one” (16%). Among other answers, 7% said they lived in an area without mobile signal coverage, and 5% had no electricity at home to charge a phone.

Why not upgrade to a smartphone was asked of those who use a basic or feature phone. The most cited answer was “I do not need one (a feature/basic phone is sufficient)” given by 60%, while 23% said they cannot afford one. (Note: Lower-end smartphone prices start around Rs. 6,000).

Next: Internet use seen from demand side

(Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been chronicling and critiquing information society for over 25 years. He tweets from @NalakaG)