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Envisioning future of Sri Lanka with Ultra-Fast Fibre & 5G: SLT-MOBITEL Technology Chiefs discusses evolving trends

Galle Submarine Cable Depot

The SLT-MOBITEL brand has reinforced its leadership as a true digital enabler further emphasizing its promise of enriching people’s digital lives and empowering businesses to unlock their fullest potential. Mangala Samarajeewa, SLT Chief Network Officer and Rasantha Hettithanthrige, Mobitel Chief Technology Officer elaborates on how the Group is paving the way for network modernization, ensuring connectivity and digital inclusivity for all citizens.

L-R: Mangala Samarajeewa, Chief Network Officer, SLT,
Rasantha Hettithanthrige, Chief Technology Officer, Mobitel (Pvt) Ltd

What steps has SLT-MOBITEL taken to serve the nation’s connectivity needs?

Mangala Samarajeewa: As Sri Lanka’s leading broadband and backbone infrastructure provider, we are planning to cover 2 million premises (home passes) with fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) through an accelerated fibre connectivity programme and are now implementing the first phase of the project to achieve 1.6 million home passes. This project was launched before the COVID-19 pandemic and due to the surge in broadband demand it was expedited to cover all districts. We are also boosting our 4G fixed network capacity and coverage by optimizing our coverage and upgrading our base stations.

Expansion of our backbone network is being carried out in parallel, with new capacity being added to both the domestic and international optical fibre cable network. We are working on a new submarine cable (SEA-ME-WE 6 connecting France to Singapore with over 20,000 km of undersea cables) to be completed in 2024, expanding capacity of our existing submarine cable network to cater to Sri Lanka’s growing requirements, and expansion of our global IP network to ensure optimum international connectivity. We are also adding new rack space to our Pitipana data centre to serve the demand for data centre services.

Rasantha Hettithanthrige: In supporting the nation’s vision to provide 100% 4G LTE connectivity to every citizen in Sri Lanka, Mobitel has undertaken numerous initiatives including network modernization, implementation of future ready technologies such as NB-IOT, AI, BIG Data and many more. Further we were the first mobile network operator to deploy a Sub-1G mobile broadband network utilizing 850 MHz spectrum in Sri Lanka, launched the First Commercial 4.5G/4G+ Mobile Network in South Asia in 2018 and successfully trialed 5G by connecting a commercial Mobile smartphone to our 5G network. Our investments to improve network infrastructure across Sri Lanka has surpassed over USD 800M on the Mobile front. While we are committed to leading Sri Lanka towards the next phase of digital revolution, we continue to phase-out obsolete technologies and transform the resources by equipping with advance technologies to provide base level connectivity need for the people in rural areas and introduce cutting edge technologies to empower digitally savvy people and businesses. 

Further, SLT-MOBITEL as the Nation’s ICT Solutions Provider has taken prompt measures to uplift the education sector by donating laptops and desktops to support the ICT needs of school children and help improve the education of the younger generation.

SLT-MOBITEL Mobile 5G Trial Site in Colombo

How does backend engineering work to create a seamless experience for customers?

Mangala Samarajeewa:  The total management of our networks is the responsibility of the regional and in-house network teams. We conduct routine proactive and reactive maintenance, mainly for different technology platforms such as broadband network, IP network, global network, and undersea cables. In addition to maintaining and managing the network, we also carry out network development and implement new projects for capacity expansion and new product development.

Rasantha Hettithanthrige: Our backend engineering team works around the clock to conduct KPI monitoring on a daily basis and strives to maintain international industry standards in terms of connectivity, user experience, and overall value for money.  Adhering to this ethos, has helped us minimize site down time and provide a world class connectivity experience to our loyal customer base. Further, we conduct state-of-the-art technology upgrades such as 4.5G, Massive MIMO, Carrier Aggression technologies to enhance network capacity and improve our service levels. In addition, we also conduct targeted testing to evaluate the performance of base stations to ensure that every base station across the island is operating at its optimal capacity.

Can you elaborate on innovative technologies that have been introduced or in the process of being commissioned?

Mangala Samarajeewa: We recently introduced 1 Gbps FTTH services to customers in select locations in Colombo and Kandy, with other locations to be rolled out shortly. With our community Wi-Fi platform any SLT-MOBITEL broadband customer has access to about one million access points all over the world through their SLT-MOBITEL broadband selfcare account. In Sri Lanka alone over 500,000 community Wi-Fi hotspots are available for customers.

We are rolling out Software-Defined services, including SD-WAN, for enterprise customers which can provide flexible and economical connectivity. In our core network, we are going transforming our appliance-based equipment to software-based virtual networks, offering more reliability and flexibility. We are also working on automating our internal processes to improve the customer experience we deliver and increase the time our employees spend in adding value to our customer.

Rasantha Hettithanthrige: The latest initiative we have commissioned is the roll out of 5G Trial zones in Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna, Anuradhapura, and Galle where customers with 5G compatible devices can experience the best of 5G. Further, we have implemented asmart lamp pole’ solution in strategic locations across the island working with local Road Development Authorities to provide hotspot coverage without harming the aesthetic view of the environment. Additionally, we have introduced Internet of Things (IoT) related technologies such as ‘NB IoT’, mission critical communication and push to Talk (over the cellular) solutions and new generation 5G technology. In addition, we have also further improved our innovation arm by forming a research and development unit which looks into the breadth of the technology applications deployment across industries.

How does the macroeconomic challenges affecting the networks and what plans are in place to overcome them?

Mangala & Rasantha: The country is going through a challenging period with the prevailing Socio-Economic challenges. The crisis has impacted the livelihoods of people and has caused many small-scale businesses to shut down, large companies to rethink and multinationals to re-strategize their operations. The main challenge we face today is the currency fluctuation which is impacting our infrastructure sourcing and implementation. On the other hand, the cost of operation has increased by 40%. Telecommunication being an essential service, we are the only segment that has not gone through a price hike although all the other businesses have increased their prices.

 Further, we are now seeing a sudden demand for broadband internet and the volume of usage as majority of people are beginning to work from home. Since we increased the network coverage, throughput and increase in international ISP capacity to manage the high levels of resource utilization and network availability well ahead of and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are in a better position to manage the rising demand without degrading service quality.

What are the benefits in transforming or upgrading internet connections to new technologies such as Fibre, 5G?

Mangala Samarajeewa: Through fibre we can go beyond our previous reach from a network node (about 20 km with fibre compared to about 2 km with copper) and provide a better service with limited interruptions, faster speed and more value for money. SLT-Mobitel Fibre which can go up to 1 Gbps provides customers with a more reliable broadband internet experience and enables PEO TV customers to experience FHD and even 4K content in future. We can also offer wide range of value-added services on fibre– such as enterprise VPN services and backhauling for other operators.

Rasantha Hettithanthrige: The use of new technologies will not only support accelerated digital transformation and drive the development of digital economy but also enhance customer experience in quality and performance (speed). In the future our network will be modified to cater to 5G on a commercial basis. Although we have begun 5G trial implementation, we are also making necessary infrastructure changes to gear our existing 4G network to be able to easily transform into 5G ready netowrk.

Through intelligent networks we can provide low latency, ultra-reliable and high-capacity services catering for industrial applications (robotics/AI/automation etc) and support the nation as we move towards the future industrial 4.0 revolution. In summary, with latest technologies such as 5G, people’s lives will be Smarter, businesses will have competitive advantage, pushing Sri Lanka towards digital inclusion.

How do you aim to empower all citizens through digital inclusivity?

Mangala Samarajeewa: Our vision is “all Sri Lankans seamlessly connected with world-class information, communication and entertainment services”, and we are working towards achieving it by providing seamless connectivity to locations across the country. We are supporting the country’s vision of a digital society by supporting the initiatives of TRCSL by providing the fibre based backhaul to new mobile operator sites and extending the reach of our FTTH network. We are committed to provide superior broadband connectivity to mobile base stations, schools, businesses and ultimately to all communities in the island.

 Rasantha Hettithanthrige: By working with public-private partners, we continue to enhance coverage especially in rural areas, providing access to information and enabling them to connect with the digital world through fibre or through 4G.

As the National Mobile Service provider, Mobitel has already invested more than LKR 1.5Bn on 5G and more than 20% of our 4G equipment are 5G ready as well. Further, we have also carried out numerous public demonstrations and school programs on 5G, Virtual Reality, AI, Big Data, NB-IOT and many more to enhance their knowledge and experience what the future of technologies can offer to the market. We believe that it is our duty to lead Sri Lanka towards digital inclusion whilst preserving good governance and protecting the Environment.

Further, we would like to highlight that it’s important to consider Telecoms as a Merit Good and provide required incentives to the industry enabling the Service Providers to bring-in Products and Servicers at affordable prices so that markets and other industries can truly benefit from the telco services as a true catalyst in enabling them to leapfrog and help economic resurgence of our nation.

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