Snaking in from under the sea, submarine cable link launched by Bangladesh
DHAKA, BANGLADESH, 31 May 2006
Late May 2006 saw Bangladesh launch its first submarine fibre-optic cable in the southern coastal town of Cox’s Bazar. This could allow high-speed telecommunications, but some voices critiqued the delay in making this possible.
"Bangladesh embarked onto the global information superhighway Sunday as Prime Minister Khaleda Zia inaugurated the submarine cable at its landing station on the beach of the Bay, opening up a new vista of opportunities for tapping the cheapest ICT services in all sectors," The New Nation newspaper reported on May 21, 2006.
It quoted Prime Minister Zia saying, "From today Bangladesh is going to be connected with the global information superhighway… We have reached our target through different initiatives by the grace of Almighty Allah."
In 2004, Bangladesh had signed an agreement with twelve other countries under a consortium to install the submarine cable under the seabed at a cost of Taka 6,280 million (USD 91 million).
It has landing points in fourteen countries: France, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
SEA-ME-WE 4 (South-East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4) is a submarine telecommunications cable linking those regions with an estimated life expectancy of fifteen years.
"Now the county (Bangladesh) will have a 10-gigabyte data-transfer capacity per second, 68 times higher than the current speed," the local media reported, apparently quoting official projections.
The unofficial side questioned whether this was enough.
A blogger identifying himself as Rezwan, an expatriate Bangladeshi living in Germany, argued: "Bangladesh should have been connected to the Sea-Me-We 2 (South East Asia Middle East Western Europe 2) submarine cable project started during the late 1980’s…."
Said Rezwan: "And do they know the demand of internet usage in Bangladesh? Just do some simple mathematics. My home connection is 2Mb per second (I can upgrade it to 6Mb just paying 3 Euros per month more). So 10 Gb means 5000 standard European home connections. Is that enough for a country for next ten years? Silly me. Can anyone save our country from going backwards again?"
Both regulator and principal operator
In mid-April, the Daily Star newspaper of Dhaka also reported that the country’s dominant telecom player Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB) is declining an offer to participate in the expansion scheme being undertaken by three of the sixteen members of the consortium.
BTTB is Bangladesh’s principal operator and holds a monopoly in provision of telephone services in the urban areas, domestic long-distance and international services.
BTTB serves as the regulator, as well as the principal telecom operator. The creation of a new regulatory regime is "under review".
"The country has already failed to reap any benefit of being connected to the information superhighway by having the first-ever submarine cable from October last (2005) as it could not to set up the domestic interface for this system as per schedule. The system is likely to be launched this month," wrote Sharier Khan in the Daily Star.
In the midst of the claims and counter-claims, it can be sometimes difficult to distinguish between who is lobbying for a pro-people policy, and who is just campaigning – and pushing certain policies – to get a wider share of the business cake.
Pro-people campaigning vs financial lobbying
APC’s manager of Communications and Information Policy, Willie Currie, had said in an APCNews interview recently: "In South Asia, we’re looking at a number of national advocacy campaigns. One, in Bangladesh, is advocating for a broadband policy…"
Rohan Samarajiva of non-profit LIRNEasia, the Learning Initiatives on Reform for Network Economies, told an audience attending the APC South Asia ICT policy consultation in Dhaka recently: "As civil society organisations, we tend to forget the less obvious things. Like submarine cables. But these are things that have massive payoffs. You need to be a bit opportunistic about it (while campaigning on that)."
The lesson is “do not focus on the obvious like asking for more connections to the internet or lower prices,” says he.
"Bangladesh is the only (non-landlocked) country of its size which (until now) didn’t have submarine cable access. It has been dependent on satellite (to access the internet). Bangladesh wasn’t ready at that time. Because having a cable under the sea doesn’t do anything for you unless you can connect it to where people are," he expressed.
Big-picture campaigns can make a difference, he suggests. "For example, a better access regime (in Bangladesh or elsewhere) for the submarine cable can ensure stronger competition and better all-round sector performance."
Comparing Bangladesh’s submarine cable attempt with Eastern Africa’s SAT-3, Samarajiva says the former is a "closed club consortium, with greater flexibility; it allows full circuit sales, and only the consortium can sell IRUs (indefeasible rights of use)  for 2 years; members may sell after 2007.
1 An IRU is an irrevocable right to use a specific fiber strand or specific amount of fiber capacity for a specified time period.
"Bangladesh is in 2005 where West Africa was in 2002," he says, pointing to the need for speedy improvement. Samarajiva compares African connectivity costs with those in India, "an IT-enabled solutions leader and regional benchmark". Costs are nearly two-and-a-half times cheaper in India, and many more global links are available, making a vital difference, he suggests. Just to hit the nail on the head, he adds "India is not standing still."
His suggestions to Bangladesh included some strong measures. For instance, he would encourage to hive off the SEE-ME-WE 4 consortium share and interface (including fiber to Cox’s Bazaar) from the BTTB immediately, turning it into stand-alone company.
Samarajiva would also direct BTRC (the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory
Commission) to implement an open-access regime.
Says the Sri Lanka-based Samarajiva sternly: "Don’t wait for three years and waste opportunities, do it now." 
Change is coming to Bangladesh. So is bandwidth. The question on everyone’s lips remains poignant: Is it coming fast enough and is this change going far enough?
2 Other suggestions brought up by Samarajiva include:
* Declare the cable and associated facilities essential.
* Design a management contract with strict performance incentives and put it out to tender in a transparent manner.
* Leave satellites alone, like in India.
* Encourage the landing of an additional cable (possibly connecting India or Singapore) to provide facilities-based competition in future.
* Cable redundancy is needed in addition to satellite.
* Analysts expect downward pressure on IPCL prices in
Pakistan and Sri Lanka where SEE-ME-WE 4 will be the second cable, excluding the "obsolete SEE-ME-WE 2".