The head of an ICT policy think tank last week called on the Sri Lankan government to mobilize over US$ 350 million collected under the Universal Service Fund for its intended purpose of improving digital connectivity for all citizens.
“The money has been collected, and it’s in the Treasury not being spent,” LIRNEasia Chairman Professor Rohan Samarajiva said at the 2nd Sri Lanka Broadband Forum organized by the Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure Ministry and Huawei.
According to Telecommunications Regulatory Commission data he obtained through a Right to Information request, the government had collected US$351 million by the end of 2015.
Sri Lanka’s Universal Service Fund is less burdensome on telecom companies—compared to other countries where a fee is levied from annual revenue—since just US$ 0.03 per minute is charged from international calls to maintain the fund, which should be used for improving the digital ecosystem.
He noted that other regional economies are either ahead of or are catching up to Sri Lanka on the affordability of telecommunication services, and the level of digital infrastructure, and that Sri Lanka should look at the example of Malaysia, which invested the collected Universal Service Funds for the benefit of all.
“So, we need to improve the entire digital ecosystem. Instead of keeping those funds, spend them,” Prof. Samarajeeva said.
He noted that in order to improve the digital ecosystem, the government should look at improving ICT education, impart better training on regulators, enhance rural connectivity and digital infrastructure, and encourage development of digital services for the growing elderly population.
Finance and Mass Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera may potentially be sympathetic towards this cause, as he was instrumental in modernizing Sri Lanka’s telecommunications sector in the 1990s when he held the post and telecommunication portfolio.
However, the Treasury is facing difficulty due to unexpected slips in containing the budget deficit so far this year and a need to meet a 3.5 percent of GDP deficit by 2020, which has warranted a policy of rationalizing expenditure.
Other funds similar to the Universal Service Fund collected from various other industries in the country for the purpose of promoting or improving said industries have been permanently absorbed by the Treasury over the past two years.
Meanwhile, current Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure Minister Harin Fernando is attempting to improve digital infrastructure by attempting to collaborate with state bodies such as the Ceylon Electricity Board and Sri Lanka Railways.