DHAKA, Bangladesh, 04 May 2006
So near, yet so far. Bangladesh is keenly looking forward to having an easier, more affordable and smoother ride into cyberspace, as APCNews staff writer Frederick Noronha finds out. In the eighth most populous country in the world (population 144 million), voices from civil society, the media and industry are increasingly surfacing, as this piece – filed from Dhaka in late April – demonstrates.
"We are concerned about regulatory matters. In particular bandwidth," says Reza Salim of the BFES, or the Bangladesh Friendship Education Society. "There are questions, in terms of what will be allocated, how it will be used. Whether it will be accessible in terms of cost," he adds.
Established in 1993, the BFES is a non-government development organisation based in Bangladesh. It is supporting education projects in rural areas, as its founders are essentially educationists and development practitioners.
Salim argues that it’s possible to reduce the cost of access to the internet by adopting suitable policies. "We are hopeful," he says. He stresses that infrastructure should be affordable, and that access should be available in rural areas too. "Livelihood information, that’s important."
Partha Sarkar, a co-founder of the voluntary association and APC-member BytesForAll, says straight-out that the most important priority for the country is currently broadband. "Broadband linkage has arrived (in the form of a submarine cable). But it is still waiting at Cox’s Bazaar (a coastal town in southern Bangladesh, some 200 km away from the national capital of Dhaka)," he notes.
Sarkar, who is in charge of the APC information and communication technology (ICT) policy monitor for South Asia, played a crucial role in organising the APC Regional Consultation on ICT Policy in South Asia -that took place in Dhaka in the second half of April.
"As of now, there’s still no policy in place for distributing (broadband access across the country). But this (the APC consultation) is a very good start at the right time," Sarkar insists.
"Our advocacy process is underway," says APC’s Communication and Information Policy Programme manager, Willie Currie, picking up on Sarkar’s statement.
Right now, as he points out, the use of VoIP (voice over internet protocol) is still illegal in Bangladesh. "But it should be legalised. That’s one way of providing low-cost (voice) communications," he explains.
Voice over Internet Protocol (also called VoIP, IP Telephony, internet telephony, and broadband phone) is the routing of voice conversations over the internet or any other IP-based network. The voice data flows over a general-purpose packet-switched network, instead of traditional dedicated, circuit-switched telephony transmission lines.
But why is broadband important?
"Provided that international bandwidth is available at a reasonable price, and internet service providers (ISPs) can have access to it, it will bring down the cost of the internet, while providing a more reliable 24-hour access to the internet and all related services," Currie argues.
"It provides an opportunity to utilise the existing fibre backbone networks to the maximum effect," he adds before saying that “the main thing is the opportunity for Bangladesh to allow open access to fibre optic networks of its railways and power companies”.
So what’s the secret of lowering prices? "Anybody licensed to provide an internet service should be allowed to get bandwidth through the power companies and railways," he argues.
Despite major stumble stones, the open access model promoted by APC could become a clever way to democratise access to the web. Currie believes there is a problem in a situation where the national telecom player, BTTB, not only provides access to ISPs but competes with them in providing services.
"This encourages anti-competitive practices. That’s why you need to open the alternative backbone networks of the railways and power companies to internet services," he argues.
Others are impatient too in waiting for things to happen. PC World Bangladesh, a computer magazine published under license from the Boston-based IDG Group, said in an editorial in its April 2006 issue signed by acting editor S M Iqbal: "The submarine cable which will connect the information superhighway, was scheduled to be inaugurated by March 2006. But the optical fibre link between Cox’s Bazaar and
Chittagong is yet to be completed."
Cox’s Bazar, south of the city of Chittagong, has a beach that stretches uninterrupted over 120 kilometres; it is one of the world’s longest unbroken natural sea beaches.
Iqbal points out that while the one-month deadline for the submarine cable to be commissioned has been "widely publicised in the news media", there have been no details about the finalised management or tariff structure.
"We would expect that the long-awaited submarine cable be operational soon and, at the same time, its availability should be ensured to the industry so that common people can get the benefit of it at the earliest," Iqbal concludes.