Telecom Without Tears: Book Review

My review of the book, ICT Infrastructure in Emerging Asia: Policy and Regulatory Roadblocks, was printed in Financial Times on Sunday, Sri Lanka, on 18 May 2008.

The book, co-edited by Rohan Samarajiva (in photo, below) and Ayesha Zainudeen, is published jointly by Sage Books and Canada’s IDRC. It is based largely on the work of my friends and colleagues at LIRNEasia.

Although the book showcases recent telecom and ICT reform experiences in five economies in South and Southeast Asia (Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka), my review takes a closer look at the Sri Lankan situation partly because I live and work there, and because the review was intended more at a Sri Lankan readership.

Here’s my opening:

“In the early 1990s, I had to wait for nearly six years for my first (fixed) telephone – I refused to pay bribes or use ‘connections’ to bypass thousands of others on the notorious waiting list. Earlier this year, when I bought an extra mobile phone SIM from Dialog GSM, it took six hours for the company to connect it. I found that a bit too long.

“How things have changed! Connectivity without (social) connections, and practically off-the-shelf, is now possible in most parts of Sri Lanka. Telecommunications is the fastest growing sector in the economy, recording 47 per cent growth in 2007 (and 58 per cent in 2006). The country’s tele-density (number of telephones per 100 persons) jumped to 54 in 2007, from 36 at the end of 2006 -– thanks largely to the phenomenal spread of mobile phones, which now outnumber fixed phones by three to one.”

One quick – albeit a bit unfortunate – way to introduce this book is that it apparently scared some sections of Sri Lanka’s state bureaucracy. When copies arrived from the Indian publisher earlier this year, they were held up at Customs for over three months for no logical or coherent reason. The editors speculated whether it had something to do with one chapter (among 13) looking at telephone use in war-ravaged Jaffna during the ceasefire (which lasted from 2002 to 2008), but this was neither confirmed nor denied.

In my review, I make the point: “It was a stark reminder, if any were needed, of the turbulent settings and often paranoid times in which telecom liberalisation has been taking place in many parts of emerging Asia.”

And I return to the larger political reality in my conclusion, as follows:
“Now that the ICT genie has been set loose, it’s impossible to push it back into the dusty lamp of the monopolist past, even under that much-abused bogey of ‘national security’ (or its new, freshly squeezed version, ‘war against terror’). Despite this, the officialdom and its ultra-nationalist cohorts don’t give up easily. While this book was in ‘state custody’, Sri Lankans experienced the first government-sanctioned blocking of mobile phone SMS – ironically on the day marking 60 years of political independence.

Photo below shows several contributing authors at the book’s launch in Chennai in December 2007


Read the review online

Download the review as a pdf document (47kb)
telecom-without-tears-by-nalaka-gunawardene-may-2008

Read or download the book electronically from IDRC website