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While the technological marvel of the Internet is now reaching the shores of Sri Lanka, many Lankans may be unaware of the pioneering role played by a group of academics living outside Sri Lanka in facilitating this event. The following is an account of the events and personalities closely associated with the introduction of Sri Lanka to the global CyberSpace community.
With the opening of opportunities in foreign academic institutes there was a surge in the mid 80s of Lankan students especially in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia. While engrossed in their academic activities true to Lankan fashion, most of these students were also interested in keeping abreast with the news and other events occurring in their motherland. However due to the lack of interest on the part of western news organizations to events in Lanka there was a dearth of news from home for Lankans abroad. Sri Lanka Net later commonly known as the SLNet was born to meet these needs and has today evolved into a global electronic network reaching close to 3,000 Lankan academics, students, academic institutions, diplomatic missions and western policy makers with special interest on Sri Lanka.
SLNet was first formulated in 1986 as a small electronic mailing list by the efforts of Gihan Dias, Nimal Ratnayaka, Prabath Samaratunge, Athula Herath and a few others who were all graduate students in various academic disciplines. With an initial list of 20 subscribers the list carried accounts of visits to Sri Lanka, news garnered from phone calls and letters from home etc. For Lankans starved for news from home SLNet has became the medium of choice for news, political discussions and the occasional announcement of new services. As the existence of SLNet spread by word of mouth a need for more refined sources of news was felt and Nimal Ratnayake took the initiative by posting transcripts from the BBC news broadcasts painstakingly typed by himself. Later on in 1989, Kavan Ratnatunga joined in this effort with a daily post of news wire stories collected online.
During the initial periods SLNet was organized on a set of 5 relays that facilitated the efficient distribution of the news articles to the membership. Individual lists at different relay sites were maintained on a central list by Suresh Kagoo. With the rapid growth of the membership the SLNet lists are now coordinated by Prasad Dharmasena with 18 separate relays placed in 5 continents of the globe. In addition a group of 25 volunteers, both academics and graduate students donate their free time to various activities of the SLNet mailing lists.
To continue the discussions that were around on SLNet, a separate forum to discuss political and other events in Sri Lanka, a USENET bulletin board named the "soc.culture-sri-lanka" was created in 1990. Today anyone with access to the Internet can participate in the lively discussions on Lankan politics that take place on this particular news group.
With the rapid growth of SLNet and the resultant linking of many Lankans of differing talents it was felt that the collective expertise of the membership could be utilized in support of various projects for Lankans. A new organization named Lanka Academic Network (LAcNet) was founded in June 1991, under the auspices of SLNet and was registered as a non-profit organization under the US tax code. Office- bearers for LAcNet are elected every year by the general membership of SLNet and at present Louiqa Raschid and Vicumpriya Perera hold the posts of President and Secretary respectively.
The mission objectives of the LAcNet are as follows:
1. Develop worldwide electronic networks within and outside Sri Lanka.
2. Disseminate information on, and of interest to, Sri Lanka.
3. Enhance educational facilities and opportunities within and outside Sri Lanka.
LAcNet operated the telephone/modem electronic mail relay for the LEARN (Lanka Experimental and Academic Research Network) from 1991 to 1995. The funding to run this relay which cost about $600 a month, was primarily based on generous donations from the SLNet readership and some of the organizations in Lanka which were connected by E-mail. In November 1995, LEARN obtained direct Internet access through Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT), operating a 64Kbps line from its hub in Colombo, to the University of Moratuwa.
Through the generous support of SLNet members, LAcNet was able to purchase a Pentium computer in August 1994 for the World Wide Web server (www. lacnet. org). It is presently hosted by Michael Inman and maintained by Thilaka Sumanaweera in California. The contents of the LAcNet pages are maintained by Gamini Gunaratne. It has a Sri Lanka information page developed by Muditha Abhayagunawardhana which attracts a weekly readership of about 1,500 persons. Although the contents of the LAcNet server is at present limited to English, Sinhala text pages using the LaTeX package developed by Vasantha Saparamadu, and Tamil text pages will be incorporated on the server in the future.
In March 1996 LAcNet commenced supporting Wijeya Newspapers through InfoLabs Ltd of Sri Lanka to post an Internet edition of The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka on the LAcNet World Wide Web site. The site has grown very rapidly and now has a weekly readership of about 1,500 (lOOK hits per week). Access statistics maintained at the server indicate that the publication is accessed by over 40 countries. About 50% of SLNet members and the readership of The Sunday Times is from USA, and about 10% each from Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
SLNet and LAcNet scored a first by broadcasting both the General and Presidential Elections of 1994 on the Internet. Election results released by the Election Commissioner, procured with the help of Prof. V.K Samaranayake and Gihan Dias, were transmitted to the SLNet main hub computer at the Stanford University from where the results were "broadcast" on the Internet. The response of the SLNet membership was overwhelming because for the first time Lankan expatriates were able to follow the impending change in government at the same time their compatriots in Sri Lanka were obtaining the results over the SLBC and Rupavahini. This practice of broadcasting the election results has been continued with the recent local government elections which were both posted on the web as well as E- mailed directly to SLNet subscribers with the help of the Information Department, the Center for Computing Services of the Colombo Campus and Sri Lanka Telecom.
SLNet connects Lankans worldwide, most of whom have never met each other in person but share a common interest in Lanka. Membership in SLNet is free and an automated subscription can be obtained by sending E-mail to SLNet-request @lacnet.org. Membership in LAcNet is limited to those who at any time actively participated in the operation of SLNet and/or LAcNet. More information can be obtained at the web site http://www.lacnet.org/
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