Colombo-based Professor Rohan Samarajiva : "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)."
Professor Rohan Samarajiva is no dour academic, but someone who suggests policy reform. He’s executive director of
LIRNEasia (Learning Initiatives on Reform for Network Economies). Says he: “We try to apply knowledge to the policy process, and to build capacity.”
Says the Colombo-based Samarajiva: “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).”
Take the case of the underwater internet access cable SEA-ME-WE 4. “Bangladesh is the only (non-landlocked) country of its size which 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 points out.
But when invited by the UNDP and others, a talk he addressed in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, drew 250 persons. Even
though this was a ‘hartal day’ (a day of a strike).
“I took the example of theh West African cable in 2002. Some in Bangladesh didn’t like to be compared to Africa. But Nigeria infact has better telecom statistics than Bangladesh,” he says. “West Africa in 2002 was Bangladesh in 2005. We looked at what the connectivity was. That was an example of how we used knowledge to influence policy.”
Prof Samarajiva looks at relative Indian internet prices, where there is a degree of competition.
“We leveraged the opportunities we had in an opportunistic way. I think outsiders can do only so much, the local actors
have got to do that,” says he.
In a brief discussion that followed, one question-raiser was told that earlier issues could not be discussed because “national security”. But it was admitted that Bangladesh’s link to the internet could be fragile, with only one submarine cable and no redundancies.
“We have civil society (in Bangladesh). They pop up every five years, continue for three months, and then don’t take any responsibility about this issue. The trouble is nobody is addressing the access issue,” was one criticism levelled by a participant at civil society.
Incidentally, on the LIRNEasia.net site, Prof Samarajiva writes: “Civil society role in regulation: The Association for Progressive Communication (APC), perhaps the most prominent international grouping of civil society organizations active on ICT issues, is holding a regional consultation on ICT policy for South Asia in Dhaka, April 19-21, 2006.
“LIRNEasia was invited and is represented by Ayesha Zainudeen, with a cameo role played by Rohan Samarajiva. The first prsentation by LIRNEasia was on the subject of what civil society can do in ICT policy and regulation. The basic thesis was that attention should be paid to industry fundamentals, rather than the easier topics of simply keeping prices low and increasing connectivity by subsidizing more. The short talk of less than 10 minutes was based on an illustration of an intervention by LIRNEasia in the policy debate in the host country on making good use of the submarine cable that is currently connecting a cable station in Cox’s Bazaar to the world, while the questions of connecting Bangladesh to Cox’s Bazaar and connecting multiple operators to the cable remain unresolved.”