Information Communications Technology
Customers suffer as ISP's wind up
By Akhry Ameer
A happy and contented Internet and email subscriber of Itmin, a reputed Internet Service Provider (ISP), for the past eight years, suddenly found her livelihood falling apart last week. First her email used regularly to correspond with international clients as a small-time individual consultant becomes inaccessible for nearly a week, reportedly with a hardware problem the ISP was facing. A few days later she receives a letter from the company saying that, with a view to providing a better service, it was handing its subscriber base to another ISP and that she would have to change her email address!

Itmin Internet Services Ltd is the second ISP in recent months after Panlanka to close its customer base leaving customers helpless, with just a curt explanatory letter from the company but no proper reason for the sudden decision.

Both Itmin and Panlanka are believed to have wound up their retail Internet services businesses owning to thin margins according to ICT industry experts. Eureka Online which recently re-launched itself as Eureka Technology Partners (Pvt) Ltd (ETP) with a wider range of services has come to the rescue of customers, though with some interruptions to their services until connections were being restored through the new network.

ETP when contacted acknowledged taking over Itmin customers last week. Sanjay Mendis, Head of Marketing of ETP said Itmin had faced problems with its service provider and had lost its connectivity and was thus unable to continue services to its customers. ETP has taken over the services of all customers calling in for transfer of their connections subsequent to Itmin's letter.

It is now in the process of restoring connections to Itmin's customers and will be officially contacting Itmin customers shortly. Mr. Mendis added that with the takeover all Itmin customers who signed up through ETP will receive the same high-level of service as its existing ETP customers. Further, Itmin users will be given the opportunity of continuing to use their existing email addresses.

The Sunday Times ICT learns that Itmin had utilized the services of Lanka Internet to manage the Internet and email services of its subscriber base though under the and email domain names. However, Lanka Internet had initially held back the domain name causing Itmin officials to request customers to change their email addresses to the domain name on the pretext of providing a better spam-free service. Mr. Mendis when asked said "the other service provider" had initially held back the domain but now the issue has been sorted and all Itmin customers would be able to use their old email addresses under the ETP. A financial agreement is also reported to have taken place between Itmin and ETP.

Itmin had been listed under the names of Itmin Ltd. and Itmin Internet Services Ltd. with offices in the World Trade Centre and at Independence Square. In recent months the entire operation moved to the Independence Square offices. All the contact numbers have been discontinued while Itmin officials were not contactable for comment.

Officials at Lanka Internet said Itmin had been facing financial problems even before they signed up with Lanka Internet about three months back. Thereafter they had been defaulting on payments settling only partial dues. As a result the company was forced to stop the connectivity. Lanka Internet officials who met The Sunday Times at the former's office, were undecided on how to respond to questions on how for example an ISP was providing services using the same email addresses of another provider (Lanka Internet), etc.

Itmin customers say they have been cheated owing to poor communication and note that the company was evading responsibility and failed to reveal the true picture to its clients.

ICTA prepares to disburse funds
By Akhry Ameer
Plagued by politics, questioned by some, accused by another or supported by others, the driver of eSri Lanka – the Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) - has weathered the storm to complete what it terms a “remarkable” first year of operation last month. Its Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer Manju Haththotuwa described the performance thus far reflecting on what has been achieved in a difficult first year of operation.

“The progress is remarkable considering the challenges and limited resources we had, we actually went and did many pilot projects, ran advocacy programmes to engage many stakeholders in government, private sector & civil society, designed and prepared a complex project in record time which was successfully funded by a demanding donor like the World Bank, etc,” he said. Listing a range of activities that have taken place in each of the focal areas of capacity building, creating an enabling environment, delivering citizen services, developing ICT human resources and using ICT as a lever for economic development, he added the hype and expectations had made it an enigma to society. "All this from an organisation which had its first staff member only last July. We not only had to ‘teach people to drive the car’ but also make the car and build the road!” said the company’s head implying that the expectations and the time frame laid for it have been partly unrealistic.

Having completed the first year and securing a US$53 million funding which is awaiting the formal nod of the Board of the International Development Agency, the funding arm of the World Bank, the ICTA is preparing to expeditiously disburse the funds for the various identified projects no sooner it is released early next year. The World Bank credit, translating effectively to an 83% grant and 17% repayable funds, will be used on upscaling a number of identified projects; establishment of connectivity infrastructure, including the setting up of 100 Vishwa Gnana Kendrayas (VGK) in various parts of the island. The VGKs are designed to provide access and opportunities to rural communities and the rural entrepreneur through establishing multi-service community information centres. Among the laudable objectives, this project intends to reduce the digital divide between urban and rural folk; provide information and knowledge for better quality education (e~Learning), better health information, vocational support (Agriculture, fishing etc.) leading to jobs and improved standard of living.

Additional funding in various forms for different ICT related initiatives is also being negotiated with SIDA, CIDA, JBIC and GTZ, the development agencies of Sweden, Canada, Japan and Germany. These countries are extremely interested in assisting various aspects of the ICT roadmap, according to Haththotuwa. He added that raising funding from multiple sources and building strategic partnerships too had consumed a significant part of the limited resources of the Agency in its first year.

Reflecting on the ICT Agency itself, the agency head also raised caution in whether the unit with a small professional staff cadre of 17 and 10 support staff was being pressured to work beyond its scope thereby losing focus on the major projects already funded. The first year of operation had also involved the challenges of forming itself with the best talent from private, public and civil sectors with multi-tasking capability, managing different work cultures and building support functions, such as, project management, strategic communication and change management, monitoring and evaluation of development objectives, building strategic partnerships and institutional capacity building, etc.

The ICT Agency was originally established as a development and project management organization but has had its scope extended to being the promoter of ICT in development, ICT standard bearer for Government Systems, policy resource in government, programme and project preparation, sourcing funding, procurement and managing implementation, monitoring and evaluation of projects, capturing and disseminating knowledge and lessons learnt. Further, it has also to act as a hub for various ICT initiatives implemented by the government sector to avoid duplication of activities, which it has done successfully. The ICTA continues to adopt a model of outsourced implementation involving public and private sector for its development activities and thereby hopes to develop Sri Lankan capacity and capabilities through implementation of the project.

Haththotuwa added that the roadmap, when explained, had been well received by all quarters including its then line ministry, the Ministry of Science and Technology headed now by Minister, Professor Tissa Vitharana who recently endorsed the activities of the agency. He also complemented the Agency for such initiatives as Microsoft and other IT majors coming to Sri Lanka recently and the opening of HSBC’s call centre that would eventually provide employment for 2500 people. The ICT Agency has also led in efforts to attract one of the largest Indian Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) operators, a UK insurance company, in addition to negotiating with a US publishing house under its IT Enabled Services (ITES) programme all of which have brought both jobs and strategic investment into Sri Lanka.

Speaking on the pilot projects that had been awarded last year, Haththotuwa said that 20 pilot projects had been commissioned using savings it had made from the modest project preparation fund, normally intended for setting up the project organisation and the project preparation. He stressed that, given the nature of the projects, pilots were essential to ascertain viability, scalability and replicability, before committing to the main projects in the coming months. “Many thought eSri Lanka will be a quick fix. The correlation between ICT and development is still a fuzzy and unproven one. We are in many ways a first in the world and a flagship project for even the World Bank” he added. The pilot projects had also taught lessons and highlighted areas of improvement, as in the case of the Govi Gnana System which was intended to empower the farmer by providing him with information about best selling prices thus making him the chief beneficiary of the entire system. However, the middleman benefited more from the GGS but we will reshape the project as we move it to the next stage."

Many of the disbursements of funding in the first phase would involve government projects. Already 650 Chief Innovation Officers have been identified and are being trained through various workshops to create a bottom-up approach of ICT needs identification and preparation of things to come.

In looking forward to the year ahead, Haththotuwa said that a major task of the agency in its second year would be to expand the awareness of e-Sri Lanka and its benefits to the wider public and build institutional capacity and leadership to handle the projects, prepare some projects for tender and coordinate the implementation.

"In three years, as the projects go live, we hope we will have some critical services in the government conveniently available to the public from most parts of Sri Lanka and the beginnings of an electronically enabled and empowered Sri Lankan society". He added, “clearly these benefits will take decades to cataclysmically change rural Sri Lanka as we have seen in countries like Singapore and Korea who took 20 plus years of consistent policies, investment and committed leadership.”

Informatics Launches University of London External Porgramme
Informatics Institute of Technology (IIT) launched the external programme of the University of London, UK (UOL) recently. The programme offers undergraduate Honours Degrees in Information Systems, Accounting and Finance, Banking and Finance, Economics and Management and Diploma courses for graduates in Information Systems and Management.

The UOL with a total student population of 115,000 plus an additional 32,000 on the External Programme is one of the largest and oldest universities in UK. The External Programme manages the majority of the University of London's distance learning courses. It was established in 1858 to make its degrees accessible to students who could not physically attend the University. The external programme today is followed by students in over 180 countries for more than 100 University of London qualifications.

Informatics (Pvt) Limited formed the IIT in 1990 and has successfully carried out its 15th intake of students. Its alumni of over 700 are holding key positions in Information Technology and the Business Industry locally and overseas. Established in 1983, IPL is a leading systems integrator and a software solutions provider in Sri Lanka with business units in Telecom, Insurance, Banking and Finance, Hotel, Government Core Businesses and Retail Industries.

Point of View
Talking Computers - What Next?
By Priyanthi Wickramasuriya
Do you know that nowadays you can speak to your PC, and more importantly, they in turn can talk back to you? Today's personal computers come equipped with built in speech-ware and speech recognition software - in particular, Windows/Office XP and Windows Me and not to mention, those still to come.

As far as Office XP is concerned, you have to install the software from your CD-ROM properly. Now in Sri Lanka, when people buy new computers, only very rarely is the software billed separately. And so many vendors seem to think that the potential user(s) would never need it. So, they try to save on disk space (which now comes in terms of Giga Bytes), and omit the speech part conveniently.

My campus PC's XP Office-ware has got three voices to choose from: L. Michael, (Ms) L. Michelle and Microsoft Sam. Being a girl, I prefer to be crooned to by a boy, and that limits my choice to just two. Microsoft Sam has the clearer voice, but is a trifle loud for the hushed environment where I work. So I content myself with Mr. Michael. All I have to do is to go to Word, select the text, and choose Speech from the Tools menu.

Trouble starts however, when I click on the speech-tools icon set. It wants to train the computer to recognize my voice, and asks me to adjust my microphone, and get-set-ready to go! But there's no separate microphone attached to my PC. Only the built-in tiny amplifier, that's just enough for me to listen to cosily. My guess is that once again, the vendors have played us out - oops, slightly amiss with their part of the contract by 'forgetting' to hand over this tiny bit of gadgetry.

But going by what I can glean from the run-up to the voice training, before it aborts owing to the lack of a microphone, a given PC can have several voice profiles. So, if you are sharing your Home PC with your ever-loving Hubby, or alternatively with your Mum or Dad and that pest of kid brother of yours, you need not argue among yourself as to who is entitled to give directions to your computer. It's shareware all the way!

Of course, giving it directions doesn't mean that you can instruct your computer to write complex program commands, or even to produce a report for your Sales Manager from the Customer Database. At the moment what you can do is to dictate little notes like this to your word processor (meaning Word and perhaps word-pad), and issue short commands like "Explorer, Open File, 'Talking Computers'".

More importantly, while a talking computer can ease computer communication to an ordinary sighted person with full use of fingers in either hand, it can open vistas unimaginable to a disabled person - particularly paraplegics, people who had lost the use of their hands and blind people.

I have been moved to write this as I had seen an article in The Sunday Times recently about the plight of some blind students at Colombo University, who were loaned some PCs for their exclusive use in a room reserved for them. They have complained that only one PC has voice recognition software on it. Now this, I find astounding. It is well known that a blind student can't directly stare at a computer screen. Since the Colombo Campus is conducting its lectures in English, if only those poor blind students are properly equipped and enlightened and enabled, they can get their computers to at the least read aloud their notes for them.

As for myself, I wait for the day that some enterprising soul provides means to hear Sinhala texts read aloud in a natural Sinhala accent on my PC! And maybe-maybe to dictate to it official letters in our official tongue, AND oh yes! To issue voice-commands in Spoken Sinhala!

Back to Top  Back to Business  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.