Can interactive TV curb Digital Divide?

Posted on May 25, 2007  /  3 Comments

Since we have discussed ‘Digital divide’ in length, let me share this concept note from my electronic annals. This is an idea a private sector IT company had few years back, but due to various reasons never implemented.
They suggest a method to convert the TVs to Internet enabled PCs as a way to bridge the digital divide, using something called a ‘set top’ box.
Central Bank Consumer Finance survey 2004 had found over 75% of the houses have TVs while the PC penetration level was much lower. (Specially in rural areas it was like 1-2%) So converting TVs to PCs makes lots of sense. The cost involvement was one third of the cost of a new PC.
This concept note was written somewhere in 2004, so obviously the figures are outdated. Anyway that does not matter. What matters is how practical the idea is and whether we can implement it anyway.
Please free to share your ideas. Techies are welcome.


On the face of it, Sri Lanka can be identified as a country that has achieved most of its goals in education. Some of its education indicators are on par with those of the developed countries and well above the same in its South Asian neighbours. The Overall literacy rate is 90.1% with figures for male 82.5% and female 87.9%. Primary net enrolment ratio is as high as 97.2%. The percentage of the population without any formal education is only 8.6% – a sharp decrease from 41.8% in 1953.
On the other hand, in spite of these achievements, there exists a notable ‘Digital Divide’ between the urban (21% of the population) and rural and estate sectors (79%) of the Sri Lankan society. For example, according to the social economic survey done recently, the percentage of the population aged 5 years and above that completed primary education was 94% in the urban areas, while it was only 76% in the estate sector. In the urban areas 67% completed the secondary education, while only 20% in the estate sector was able to achieve the same. This difference could be mainly attributed to the better infrastructure conditions for education in the urban sector as well as other socio economic differences among the sectors.
The best schools in the island are in the urban areas. The standards of the schools vary widely between the urban areas and the rural areas. Usually rural areas are served either with primary schools or secondary schools providing limited subject streams. Many rural areas do not have adequate number of Science and Mathematics teachers. Therefore, the students who intend to pursue their higher studies in the science stream, which will obviously provide better opportunities in the job market, have no other option than entering to a school in an urban area. Many are deprived this opportunity either for financial or social reasons.
The ICT/Internet proliferation in the rural areas is extremely poor due to several reasons. An analysis of the Internet traffic reveals that 89% of the Internet usage was from the urban areas. In many areas the infrastructure facilities are not available to obtain an Internet connection. In some other areas, even if the electricity and dial-up connections are available, the quality of the service is well below the expected levels. In spite of several attempts to take Internet to the villages, including those under the recently launched e-Sri Lanka programme, the rural areas of Sri Lanka still remain unconnected and therefore largely isolated from the world.
A key obstacle to use Distance Learning concepts to bridge the Digital Divide in Sri Lanka is the poor ICT and Internet proliferation in the rural areas.


The fundamental objective of this project is to build an educational network, named ‘Senavidu-Net’, connecting a significant portion of the rural communities in Sri Lanka, to provide the high standard education opportunities to rural students through Distance Learning.

The long-term objective of the project is to eliminate / minimise the information gap between urban and rural sectors. In the short term, it is expected to make quality formal education content available to the rural students to empower them to get better opportunities in the job market. This content will be provided both in local languages and in English.
A clear distinction between this project and the rest of the distance learning projects currently being carried out in Sri Lanka is that from the user end, this project employs Television sets equipped with set-top boxes that will emulate them into PCs, instead of PCs with Internet connections. This is the only Distance Learning project so far intended to offer this unique solution.
This project will also address the lacuna of good quality education programmes via TV. At present, all the nine television channels in Sri Lanka seem to concentrate more on commercial and entertainment programmes, while neglecting the large section of audience, which needs educational programmes.
The decision to use Television sets instead of Internet PCs to address the last mile problem was reached due to several key reasons:
(i) Although the Internet proliferation is poor in Sri Lanka, a significant number of houses, even in the rural areas, are equipped with TVs. Overall, 60% of the houses in Sri Lanka is equipped with TVs, while even in the North Central Province, where 80% of the population depends on Agriculture and which is considered one of the most rural areas, 40% of the houses have TVs. It is estimated that there are over 1.5 million TV sets in Sri Lanka. This is further elaborated by the following graph, which shows the comparative growth rates of TV and Internet accounts in Sri Lanka, within the first nine years since the introduction of each medium.
(ii) The computer literary rates are extremely poor in the rural areas. On the other hand, a TV equipped with a set-top box is much easier to use and the students will be able to do so, after a basic training.
(iii) The cost of a PC and the Internet usage costs are still not within the reachable limits of many sections of the population. However, in this solution the additional investment is only for a set-top box (which is priced in the range of US$ 100) so it is financially more viable.
(iv) The problem of PC maintenance is easily solved by this solution.
Graph : Growth of Internet vs. Growth of Television

(within the first eight years of introduction of each media)

Sources: Central Bank of Sri Lanka and estimations based on the
Telecommunication Regulatory commission data


This project will be implemented by a registered limited liability company in Sri Lanka, with the minimum assistance from the donor agencies. The company is one of the top Systems Integrators in Sri Lanka, with a wide experience in the networking sector. It has provided networking solutions to some of the major public sector and private sector organisations in Sri Lanka, such as Sri Lanka Telecom, Sri Lankan Airlines, Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Inland Revenue Department of Sri Lanka, Central Bank of Sri Lanka and six out of its nine universities.


The project scope involves:
q Building the necessary island-wide communication infrastructure using Broadband technology
q Developing the content in English and the local languages and
The implementation of the infrastructure will be done by the said company, utilising its expertise in that area. The content will be produced by the sub contracted resource personnel. Most of the resource persons are from Sri Lankan universities.

The initial investment required for this project is estimated to be US$ 4 million excluding the cost of the set top boxes. Nearly half of this amount will be used for content development.


In the short term, the key beneficiaries will be the students from the rural areas, who at present do not have access to the quality education facilities, their urban counterparts enjoy. However, in the long run, the boundaries of the circle of the beneficiaries will be expanded to cover the entire rural population.


This is a self-sustainable project. It is planed to connect a minimum of 10% of the TVs in Sri Lanka to this educational network. So levying a moderate sum of even US$ 5 per month on the usage of the facilities (This figure was arrived at based on the average amount of money Sri Lankan parents spend on educating a child) will ensure an annual income of US$ 9 million.
However, the project involves a significant initial investment both from the implementation agency side as well as the users’ side. The donor agency assistance is sought to bear the cost of the set-top boxes supplied to a section of students coming from low-income families.


  1. OK, This is a nice idea to set up a network
    What would you teach ?
    In which Language ?
    Is there content available ?
    Or are you going to create it ?

  2. Dear Guest,

    TV was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1979. Did any one questioned about the content then?

    Infrastructure and content are like chicken and egg. Both will develop together.

    If we were to have blue prints of everything, nothing will ever happen.

  3. You’re so awesome! I don’t supρose I’ve read through something like that before. So great to discover someone with some unique thoughts on this subject. Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is required on the internet, someone with some originality!

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