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Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh: EQUITABLE CITIZENS’ ACCESS

Author's name: 
A2I Office, PM Office, Dhaka
Dhaka Bangladesh

Our constitution envisions a state mechanism that guarantees equitable distribution of wealth among its citizens and of opportunities, which will eventually guide to the path of sustainable economic development. Use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for
connecting the millions and developing optimized resource utilization framework can help us as
a nation to attain this constitutional objective. This vision has been echoed in the “Charter for
Change”, the election manifesto of Bangladesh Awami League during the ninth parliamentary
election of Bangladesh in 2008. The charter points to the need for human resource
development using ICT (in communication and education), a key factor for the establishment of
an equity based society, the “Digital Bangladesh”. The national ICT policy 2009 also reflects this
overarching goal of development using ICT. This policy recognizes social equity, universal
access, and support to ICT options as some of its key strategic objectives. Overall, the primary
precondition is to ensure the development of an affordable and convenient multi-channel
access mechanism to connect people and promote digital inclusion for development.

SITUATION ANALYSIS
With 43.4% functional literacy (base) rate and majority of the population based in rural areas,
the people of Bangladesh predominantly rely on traditional and relatively low-tech ICT options
to have access to information. The size of user base for public AM radio and terrestrial TV in
Bangladesh is comparable to its South Asian neighbours (except Nepal, which enjoys an
exceptionally high radio listenership rate). Figure 1 shows the comparative data of literacy,
telephone and internet density and other traditional access among four South Asian countries.

VOICE SERVICE

Mobile Phone: In Bangladesh, the access price for mobile telephony and the monthly tariff is
one of the lowest [ITU ICT Index-2009, Samarajiva, 2008]. At present there are 54.7 million
cellular phone subscribers (BTRC, March 2010). Overall, the teledensity (voice) is steadily rising
over 36 % in terms of active connection availability. But as traditionally our rural population
uses shared access to the mobile phone services, the access rate is higher than the CPE (active
connection) penetration. With the opening up of mobile services in the Chittagong hill tracts
area, mobile phone coverage has already reached more than 90% coverage in terms of
geographical area and 98% in terms of population coverage. Through individual ownership,
shared access, public call centres and phone-ladies, cellular phone has become the most
popular ICT option in Bangladesh.

Now the Government is preparing to award 3G license to the mobile operators. The licensing guidelines have been drafted. Also the 2G license of the four mobile operators are going to be renewed by 2011. The regulatory body is working on the license renewal issues and Mobile Number Portability, Emergency call service etc are being considered in this case. Also the
dialogue is going on in the industry that whether the 3G frequency would be awarded through
‘Open Auction’ or ‘Beauty Contest’ and also about the possibility of a new entrant in the 3G
awarding process.

In the last revision of National Frequency Allocation Plan, frequency bands have been reserved
for Long Term Evolution (LTE)1 and Digital Dividend2 (Multimedia Broadcasting). Considering
the technical development, interoperability and ability to offer ubiquitous services, these
technologies are considered to be have great prospect in our country.

Fixed Phone: For the fixed land line, total subscriber is 1.7 million [BTRC, 2010]. For a long time,
the fixed voice service has been a state monopoly and that system totally failed to create a
mass subscriber a base and failed to promote telecom as a service to the people. Then after,
the regulator, especially from the year 2004, started the awarding of fixed voice licenses to the
private operators. But due to the absence of proper business model and attractive service
offerings, the subscriber base has not been expanded to the expected level.

IP Telephony: To legalize the use of VOIP call services in the local market, the regulator has started the licensing of IP telephony Service to the ISPs. Till now, 34 licenses have been
awarded. The IP-IP domestic calls probably will get popularize, specially among the corporate customers as the IP Telephony operators are allowed to offer free IP-IP domestic calls for their
customers. The bundle offer of unlimited IP-IP calls for a fixed internet connection charge will attract the users and the penetration of fixed internet is supposed to be increased. Scarcity of
power has been identified as one the main hindrance against the proliferation of commercial IP
telephony in Bangladesh.

1 LTE is a step toward the 4th generation (4G) of radio technologies designed to increase the capacity and spe ed of
mobile telephone networks. [ITU,2010]
2 The unprecedented amount of spectrum that will be freed up in the switchover from analogue to digital
terrestrial TV is known as the Digital Dividend. [ITU, 2010]

Beside the retail customer service, the Mobile and PSTN operators are offering PCO services.
For the small entrepreneurs, this PCO business has created a widespread impact on the local
market.

DOMESTIC BACKBONE

Bangladesh has nationwide telecom backbone network; both optical fibre and wireless. The mobile operators, Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited (BTCL), Power Grid Company of Bangladesh (PGCB), Bangladesh Railway (BR), some PSTN operators and new entrant nationwide Telecommunication Transmission Network (NTTN) operators are the key
role players in developing backbone infrastructure in the country. All but the PSTN operators cumulatively have deployed almost 15,000 Km optical fibre backbone covering 59 districts. 297
Upazila’s have been covered by this fibre network. Due to geographical reason, the Chittagong
Hill Tract area and a couple of districts in the Southern part of the country are outside the
present fibre network infrastructure. Under ‘build, operate and own’ arrangement, the NTTN
operators have been given the right to develop, maintain and operate NTTN to become
nationwide infrastructure developer.

In addition, BTCL, most of the mobile operators and some of the ISPs have microwave (wireless)
backbone throughout the country. The two wireless broadband (WiMAX) operators are also
going to roll out their backbone or share network infrastructure from other operators. To avoid
the unnecessary duplication in developing fibre backbone and other telecom infrastructure and
setting up a cost effective system, the telecom regulator has issued ‘Infrastructure Sharing
Guidelines.’ The operators already have started sharing their passive infrastructure and leasing
out spare backbone capacity to other operators which have created a positive impact in the
sector [BTRC, 2010]. The state owned operator and NTTN operator are in the deployment of
more optical fibre links in different routes. Most of these will provide redundant backbone
connectivity for the operators.

The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) is proactive in expanding the information backbone all
over the country. To coordinate the optical fibre deployment in the country, ‘Domestic Network
Coordination Committee’ has been formed from the initiative of the Prime Minister’s office
(PMO). Optical fibre utilization policy has been drafted. The committee is also coordinating the
stock taking of the necessary fibre backbone links and capacity to facilitate the internet
connectivity to the information centres and e-centres established and to be established at
upazila and Union level.

INTERNATIONAL CONNECTIVITY

In addition to the state-owned SEA-ME-WE4 undersea cable, the GoB is planning to award second submarine cable license to private sector [BTRC, 2010]. The final draft of the licensing guidelines has been published for public comments. To expedite the establishment of
redundant international connectivity, GoB is planning to award International Terrestrial Cable operator license to private sector. With the successful implementation of these systems, Bangladesh can have fast and diversified international connectivity through neighbouring countries.

Though the international links are thought to be awarded to the private sector for creating competition and redundancy, state monopoly still exist in the backhaul connectivity from the present Cable Landing Station (CLS) of submarine cable to international Gateways’ POPs. The international gateways even are not allowed to set commercial negotiation with the foreign carriers to set the international bandwidth price to a reduced level (no open CLS policy) and
must rely on the monopolistic price offering from Government owned entity. This is a big catch
in the system and must be addressed for a sustainable, efficient and cost effective international
connectivity.

INFRASTRUCTURE FOR CONNECTING CITIZENS
The ICT service access point and the infrastructure are in the development phase. Presently,
more than 2300 telecentres and 500 Community Information Centres (set by mobile operators)
are in operation all over Bangladesh. Telecentres or rural information centres provide a range
of services with high variance (e.g. net connectivity for the community population, ICT training,
agro-based information service, photocopy service, digital photography, printing out
government forms, telemedicine, courier service etc) [BTN, 2010]

Recently the Local Government Division chalked out a plan to set up Union Information and
Services Centres (UISC- a shared access point setup under public-private partnership) at all
4,507 unions with computers and Internet connections. Under the planned initiative, 100 UISCs
was set up by 2009, another 1,000 by the middle of 2010, and the rest by the end of 2010. It is
noteworthy that 935 Union Parishads still outside the national electricity grid will set up these
UISCs using solar power. In addition, government can explore the possibilities of using
installations like Community Health Clinics (approximately 18,000 all over Bangladesh) and
nearly 10,000 Post Offices as last mile information access points for the local communities. A2I
project is providing technical assistance and capacity building support to establish information
centres at all the Unions with broadband internet connectivity. LGRD ministry is implementing a
project to provide data service to the rural peoples through training up 2 personnel from each
Union and hosting service centre by them.

Education ministry is working in 128 upazila to build ICT infrastructure for facilitating ICT
services. Bangladesh Computer Council is providing internet connectivity (through EDGE
Modem) to 1,200 schools. The PMO is taking initiative to coordinate all these efforts and has
targeted to connect all the Unions with broadband internet connectivity and ICT service within
2-3 years. The development of shared access point at different level is also important in a
resource-constrained environment. However, special emphasis must be put on ensuring that
women have equitable access to these shared points by ensuring a gender-sensitive
environment.

ACCESS TO DATA SERVICE
Bangladesh has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in South Asia (4.08%) [BTRC,
2010]. Its neighbours, Pakistan, India and Nepal have Internet penetration of 11.1%, 7.2% and
1.4% respectively (Figure 1). The majority, 5.7 million users are accessing internet using
GPRS/EDGE technology (provided by cellular phone companies). The fixed line internet

subscribers, connected to the PSTN and ISPs are around 290,000 in number (242,000 ISP subscribers). In addition, the GoB is actively promoting the concept of shared Internet usage through community information centres or telecentres. The GoB recognizes the importance of
a strong public-private partnership to develop a sustainable network of last mile connectivity
(LMC). Community based telecentres or rural shared Internet access points are being developed
as parts of the LMC infrastructure by both private sector and the government. Our rural people
have started to reap the benefit of modern ICT based applications through these telecentres.
Through the intermediaries they can call a help line or have access to a website for their query.

At this moment, there are 101 national and 138 zonal ISP license holders for providing Internet services in Bangladesh. The PSTN and CDMA mobile operators are using EVDO technology for providing data service. Some of the ISPs are also provided with frequency bands to provide
fixed wireless data service. Two BWA operators have started their service in Dhaka and the
subscriber base in increasing Establishment of e-infrastructure, implementation of e-
governance and e-commerce will drive their business interest to an expected level. They are
now planning to roll out their network to other parts of the country. For a number of times, the
regulator has reviewed the international and domestic bandwidth price, especially for the data
service. The license fee and relevant charges has been reduced drastically for the zonal ISPs to
promote fixed line internet penetration to the marginal areas. Now, the NTTN operator is also
deploying FTTx lines, which will facilitate the subscriber providing bundle of telecom,
broadcasting and IT services through the same connection.

The most popular way to access the internet service is mobile phone as the access price to this type of data service is comparatively very low, offers high user flexibility and its less prone to
any power related problems. Considering all these factors, in order to expedite the broadband penetration, 3G frequency is considered to be awarded to the cellular operator. 3G Licensing
guidelines have been drafted and license awarding process may start within this year.

ICT SERVICE SECTOR

With growing user base in cellular phone and Internet sectors, service providers are introducing value added services, which commercially as well as societal viable. Mobile based health and educational help-line options are fast becoming popular among millions in both rural and urban settings. Mobile based functional English learning service (BBC Janala) has been launched with interactive teaching options. Private entities are also actively exploring synergistic opportunities between mobile telephony, Internet and info-mediaries (field workers with focus on
information services). Especially in rural areas, more people are showing willingness to use
agriculture and health centric information services. Phone-in options and short message service
(SMS) are now widely used by mainstream TV and radio stations to obtain viewers’/ listeners’
opinion on a wide variety of issues. All mobile phone service providers are providing
consultation service with doctors. Both live consultations with doctors and Interactive Voice
Response (IVR) services are being offered to the people. The upazila Health Complexes are
equipped with mobile phones where people can consult with the doctor on-duty.

The GoB alongside the private sector has also recognized the substantial demand and scarcity
of local content in key information service sectors. Text and multimedia livelihood contents
(created by some private ICT entrepreneurs and Access to Information project of the PMO)
cover key areas like agriculture, health and human rights. At the same time, initiatives taken by
“Agricultural Information Services” and agencies under the Ministry of Health to create digital
content are set to address the present gap.

BROADCASTING:
Presently, Bangladesh has a large user base of TV and radio services. But the social and
educational value addition of the present service system is extremely low. Though every family
in a village can not afford their own TVs, watching TV programs collectively in an affluent house
has always been a common practice in the villages and towns in Bangladesh. In terms of radio
broadcasting, the private radio channels are not accessible to the whole country; especially
rural communities. Popularity of these urban FM radio stations are on the rise, especially
among the youth. The public radio, “Bangladesh Betar” has the largest network which covers
the whole country. It broadcasts programs on diverse issues e.g. health and nutrition,
education, children and women rights. Betar broadcasts programs targeted towards the general
population rather than segregated population.

Community Radio (CR) could be an effective mean to reach various communities in the country
and deliver information and services tailored to the respective community. Community Radio
(CR) reaches the mass population and yet serves the particular needs of different communities.
It is established and/or operated by a particular community and broadcasts news, information,
programs tailored to the respective community’s condition and needs.

POSTAL SERVICE/INFRASTRUCTURE:

The postal service in Bangladesh reaches citizens in remote corners where private courier and telephony services are not available. Wide-range network (10,000 post offices) and affordability
are the primary characteristics of public postal services in Bangladesh. The 10,000 rural post
offices all over the country can be used effectively in delivering information and services to the
rural citizens and thus reducing the digital divide. In alignment with the ‘Digital Bangladesh’
vision, Bangladesh Post Office (BPO) has initiated a few e-services and strengthened their
capacity to deliver digitized services. In 2009, the Postal department initiated computer-based
vehicle tax collection in 60 post offices. A number of private banks already signed agreements
with BPO to use their network of post offices around the country to transfer remittances to the
doorsteps of the beneficiaries. The rural people will be able to receive instant cash payment
from designated post offices. BPO has also signed agreements with Western Union Money
Transfer to transfer foreign remittances to the grassroots people through post offices. In terms
of domestic money transfer, the recently inaugurated mobile money order and postal cash card
service have made remittances to the rural area even easier. In this system, all post masters will
be given special SIM cards and anybody with a mobile phone can send/receive remittance
through the post office.

LAST MILE CONNECTIVITY:

The marginal part of the population is still beyond the telecom network. The mobile telecommunications operators have identified the Tk. 800 SIM tax as an important issue where
the investment is being used for subsidy to the subscribers. In a market like Bangladesh, where
the tariff is the lowest, most the users are pre-paid in nature and the average revenue per user
(ARPU) is below the profit margin, the operators need more than a year to recover the amount
of 800 Taka (per SIM subsidy), even if the subscriber is connected thoroughly. This type of
initial cost for connectivity ownership, which is not present in any of our similar economy, has
the most adverse effect in increasing last mile connectivity. The high import tax on handset and
telecom equipment is also hardening the spreading of data service, as presently the most
popular and effective form of data connectivity is mobile.

In terms of data connectivity, even the urban areas do not have strong user base. The above mentioned SIM tax situation, along with high handset tax and corporate tax affected the business case of the operators to create pro-active business model to reach the deprived
section. The ISPs, though are enjoying very low regulatory charges and relevant fees, also are
not interested to go to the rural areas because of the absence of proper demand, high
infrastructure development cost and operational cost. The situation is also not promising in the
service domain for broadband. Only a handful number of household/individual customers are
using dedicated 128kbps line or above and are mostly centred in Dhaka, some in Chittagong.
The long term sustainability of this effort can only be guaranteed by ensuring appropriate
business models.

SOME KEY SUCCESS FACTORS
Amid resource constraints, limited infrastructure, lack of trained human resource in both
private and public sectors, and substantial gaps in terms of awareness, availability, accessibility
and affordability of different information services, Bangladesh has achieved considerable
progress in its mission to connect its millions of citizens. Some of the key factors behind this
continuous success are:

DEVELOPMENT OF EFFECTIVE REGULATORY REGIME

The Telecom Policy of 1998 suggested the formation of an independent regulatory body for the telecom sector. Upon its recommendation and considering the booming development of technology and service parameters, Bangladesh Telecommunication Act of 2001 was passed. Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) was created as an independent regulatory commission by this Act on the 31st of January, 2002.

LOW COST FOR VOICE & DATA SERVICE ACCESS

Bangladesh offers one of the lowest access fees (both in domestic and business sectors) for broadband access in South and South-East Asia, which will have a long term positive effect in
the ICT enabled infrastructure development and information services. Figure 2 shows the comparative pricing figures of 8 countries [LIRNE Asia, 2009].

PRO-ACTIVE TELECOM OPERATORS AND NGOS

Bangladesh has achieved almost 100% tele-coverage without the support any Universal Service obligation, primarily due to the competitive market environment in the mobile telephone
industry. Also, the private sector is very active in awareness campaign and for ensuring accessibility to effective information by establishing a network of telecentres all over Bangladesh.

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

Establishment of a sustainable Digital Bangladesh requires consistent and pro-people regulatory environment as well as a competitive market place supported by a state of the art
infrastructure. Bangladesh faces considerable challenges (as discussed in the previous sections)
on its way of achieving such standards. Some of the key challenges are:

• Relatively low investment for establishing last mile connectivity in non-urban areas due
to the absence of sufficient commercial viability.
• Under-utilization of the present submarine cable capacity. Rapid cost depreciation of broadband Internet needs to be matched with the availability and accessibility of the ICT infrastructure by both public and private operators.
• Scarcity of power/energy sources, required for the functional effectiveness of LMC
installations and information access points, specifically in rural and semi-urban areas.
SIM Tax and high tax burden on the telecom operators.
• Lack of any viable revenue sharing model results in antitrust practices within the value added service industry.
• Lack of sufficient contents in local language.
• Lack of ICT education and ICT awareness.
• Cyber Security threats and vulnerable mobile-banking system.
• Economic behaviour of the mass is a hindrance to ensure more revenue flow in the
Value Added Service (VAS) market.

STRATEGIC PRIORITIES
Key strategies for connecting the millions of Bangladeshi citizens through nationwide
information network need to address the challenges of equity, cost, regulations, relevance and
civic awareness.

The government will also focus on providing integrated multimedia broadcasting service to reach the marginal section.

Prioritize demand creation: Already Bangladesh has achieved almost 100% coverage in terms of mobile telephony and mobile-based Internet services. However, lot needs to be done to make sure that people at the proverbial lower end of the pyramid get the benefit of the coverage by
creating and sustaining demand. Discretionary pricing scheme for social and public services available over mobile phone, for example, will be introduced to ensure that people can access

essential services at a lower cost. Discount scheme on license cost for the service providers based on amount of time their clients used their mobile phones to access public services, for example, will incentivise the service provider to offer and promote such services at a lower
cost. Similarly, similar discount can be offered based on proportion of rural use (call generating
from rural areas) to total usage.

Government especially the local government institutions need to leverage their local presence
and credibility to popularize public services that are offered on-line to stimulate demand.
Conventional media like radio, TV and print media as well as rural mediums like drama, etc. will
be utilized to build sustained awareness among the communities.

The important dimension of demand creation is to promote local content, both locally relevant content and local language content. Given that only a fraction of people can understand
English, the need for Bangla content is undisputable. Incentive schemes and regulatory
framework will be designed to promote Bangla language content. Building the capacity of
public institutes like Agricultural Information Services, Directorate of Health, National Text book
and Curriculum Board to enable them to develop digital content in local language can pay a
very important role.

Content based on Intelligent Voice Response (IVR) shall be used by illiterate as well as visually
challenged segment of the population. To expedite the creation of IVR content a ‘Text to
Speech’ application for Bangla language can go a long way. Given the critical nature of such
application, research grants may be awarded immediately to Universities. Such a system can
make existing digital Bangla content deliverable as voice.

A standard configuration of mobile phone will be developed. The configuration will consist of a standard Bangla key board layout, requirement that all mobile phone comes with a Bangla user manual and specific default settings to enable the phones to receive services such as location
based services that already piloted in the country.

At present, there are different regulatory bodies for telecom and broadcasting. There will be
more coordinated regulatory framework to make it more flexible to adopt the new changes and
benefits.

Competitive pricing policy and management of submarine cable bandwidth. Lower price and
equal access for competing service providers can help to ease the gap of access to information
faster. The open CLS (Cable landing Station) policy will be adopted. Efforts towards reducing
scope for monopoly and unfair business practices will be taken at each stage of the domestic
and international connectivity.

Strategic innovation for LMC related revenue earning models in rural and semi-urban areas. Financial incentive can help any public or private providers to offer their services beyond the profitable urban settings.

Community Radio (CR) can emerge as another channel of LMC for the base of the pyramid
(BOP) population. If people’s participation is ensured, CR can be a sustainable LMC platform for

people-to-people communication and problem solving. The government has already granted 12
licenses towards achieving this goal. Now, the government will take steps to encourage
community participation in m

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