Abul Kalam Azad <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dhaka Medical College
Nazrul Islam <email@example.com>
United Nations World Food Program
Despite the presence of online Internet service in Bangladesh, its scope is largely underutilized. The reasons include high service charges, lack of awareness, poor telecommunication systems, government policy, low buying power of potential clients, and lack of institutional support. The authors collected information from various sources through extensive interviews, record reviews, and opinion surveys of current Internet users. This paper is an overview of the situation of Internet access in Bangladesh based on the above information, which also describes the impact of Internet availability in Bangladesh together with barriers and possible solutions. The situation may match similar conditions in many developing countries, where the recommendations may be replicable.
The pioneering and bold computer magazine of Bangladesh, The Monthly Computer Jagat, expressed its deep concerns regarding Internet access in the country in its July 1996 issue. In an editorial it stated, "Revolutions have been created round the world to use Internet for extension of knowledge, scientific activities and education. But, in Bangladesh we have no such initiative to provide Internet access to the educational institutions. Even most prestigious higher institutions like University of Dhaka and Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology are beyond its reach" (1). Online Internet was legalized in the country on 4 June 1996 and the same day one Internet service provider (ISP), the Information Services Network (ISN), started work. Within one and a half months, Grameen CyberNet started service on 15 July 1996 (2). At about the same time, two other off-line providers went online by taking leased lines from the major providers (1). Very recently two big nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) started online Internet service. But despite the presence of so many ISPs, Internet access is largely underutilized. All the ISPs are capital city based with no immediate plans to extend services outside Dhaka. Moreover, subscribers mainly use the e-mail facilities of Internet, with little Web browsing or newsgroup reading. This regrettable situation has led the authors to conduct a situation analysis study.
The authors collected information from the ISPs, officials of the government-owned Telephone Board, and some informed professionals, such as computer experts, university teachers, scientists, physicians, and journalists through one-to-one conversational interviews. Local computer magazines and available relevant records were also reviewed. An important aspect of the study was an opinion survey of current online Internet users. We sent an electronic copy of a self-administered questionnaire to each of the Internet users whose e-mail IDs we could collect. It is sad to mention that none of the ISPs provided cooperation to forward a copy of the questionnaire to all of its users, and no ISP supports local discussion groups. Thus, it was difficult for us to get the e-mail addresses of individual subscribers. We got responses from 110 Internet users and have prepared an overview of the situation of Internet access in based on the information gathered from all the above sources as described below.
It has been alleged that the development of telecommunications technology in Bangladesh is being hindered by the monopoly of the government-regulated Bangladesh Telephone and Telegraph Board (BTTB). Although the government claims that it is deregulating the sector for rapid privatization to encourage healthy competition, in truth this is not so. Fear of unrest among unruly employees' unions is the main reason. The telephone cables in Bangladesh are mainly underground and copper-wire based. BTTB currently operates 340,000 lines, which it plans to raise to 800,000 by the year 2000. Of the current lines, 34% are digital and rest are analog-type (3). The government is also trying to transform the analog system to digital. Most of the telephone exchanges are operating with age-old equipment; many rural exchanges are still using the obsolete magneto and CB technology. This situation is contrary to ensuring uninterrupted and satisfactory service. A large proportion of phone lines remain dead at any time and customers must pursue illegal ways to make them workable. An applicant on average waits 10 years (4) to get a telephone line at the usual charge (US $500). The processing may be speeded up with invisible money ranging from US $250 to 500. The charge for a local phone call is 5 cents and for a long distance call is around 50 cents per minute. For the past 10 years, one private company, the Hutchison Bangladesh Telecom Company Pvt. Ltd., had a monopoly in cellular telephones, charging sky-high prices. There are currently around 4,000 cellular phones in Bangladesh. The government recently issued permission to three other private companies to distribute 59,000 cellular phones at reasonable prices; one of them started service 26 March 1997.
E-mail service was started in Bangladesh through a small private initiative sometime in late 1993. Another private organization came with a bulletin board service (BBS) with Internet e-mails and newsgroups in late 1994 that attracted many subscribers because of its good price package. There was demand from all quarters for BTTB to start VSAT or X.25 lines for Internet and data entry services. But BTTB was not willing. Bangladesh was fortunate that it got three dynamic leaders in the cabinet of the three months' neutral caretaker government formed to conduct the National Assembly election from April to June 1996. The leaders, Dr. M. Yunus (renowned for his microcredit bank for the poor), Dr. Manzoor Elahi, and science educator Dr. Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, took initiative to remove all regulatory bars for setup and use of VSAT in the private sector. As a result online Internet service began in the country on 4 June 1996. Currently, six providers are giving online Internet access; four of them are using their own 64 kilobytes per second (kbps) VSAT and the other two are using leased lines from two major providers.
Initially every ISP took US $ 250 for registering an earning subscriber and US $ 125 from a student subscriber. Today the rate has dropped to US $ 125 and US $ 75, respectively. The online charge is 7.5 cents per minute. Since December 1996 the government has imposed a 15% VAT (value-added tax) on the online charge. So users must pay 8.6 cents per minute for Internet access. Now, if a subscriber on average uses the Internet for one hour a day and 30 hours a month, his online bill per month will amount to US $ 155, which is certainly too much for a country with per capita annual income of US $ 230. Moreover, as the speed of data transmission in the telephone lines is slow because of low-speed telephone cables and around 40 phone lines connected with the 64 kbps VSAT-based server, Web browsing is very expensive. As a result users remain alert regarding consumption of time and use mainly off-line e-mails.
The ISPs certainly have limitations. They claim "the aggressive centralized commercial attitude of the government-owned BTTB" as the main culprit. It is alleged that the government failed to take appropriate measures in getting connected to the global information superhighway when it was installed and passed through the Bay of Bengal only 50 kilometers away from the shore of the country. As a result, the BTTB had to hire a satellite channel from ASIA-SAT2 at US $ 9,000 per year for Internet service. But the BTTB charges US $ 7500 + 15% (= US $8,625) per month to each major provider who owns a VSAT. Providers are required to make large investments for VSAT (US $32,500), telephones (@US $750 *40 = US $30,000) and business offices. Moreover, they have large monthly recurrent expenditures. When the providers were asked to consider omission of the initial registration fee to attract more subscribers, they simply answered, "No, we cannot take the risk and we have to recover our investment."
We collected responses from 110 online Internet users. The respondents were between 18 and 60 years of age with a mean age of 25 (standard deviation 9.6) years. Their professional distribution were: students, 50%; computer professionals, 12%; engineers, 10%; physicians, 8%; managers, 6%; teachers, 5%; businessmen, 4%; lawyers, 3%; and government officers, 2%. They were accessing the Internet from six months to one and one-half years and using online Internet for minimum of four months. Most (85%) pay online bills by themselves and the rest (15%) use the Internet on behalf of their companies. They pay Internet bills ranging from US $7.50-175 per month, but bills for most users usually do not exceed US $16 because they don't use areas other than e-mail for fear of extra bills. Web browsers or newsgroup readers usually need to pay more than US $60 per month. Daily online time varies from user to user and ranges between 5 and 40 minutes (but mostly below 10 minutes) which gives a monthly cumulative range of 2.5-20 hours per user (mostly below 5 hours). Some 83% of the online time is used for e-mails, 12% for Web browsing, and only 5% for newsgroup reading. Everybody blamed the cost factor for not or insufficiently reading Web pages or newsgroups. But there is another side of the coin. The authors have come to know that there is also a group from affluent sections that uses the Internet mainly for entertainment. Staff at some corporate users also abuse Internet beyond the knowledge of their authority; these two groups play a great role in survival of the ISPs.
It is unfortunate that the civil bureaucracy of the government could not play a timely role in creating a pro-computer environment in Bangladesh. Rather, it hindered the growth of digital civilization by imposing high taxes on computers and computer-related accessories. The bureaucracy did not influence the government's political willpower in favor of early introduction of online Internet access for fear of political and cultural openness. Nor did it support rapid computerization of the government administration. In a small study conducted in April-May 1996, it has been found that out of 41 government ministries, 5 had no computers; 24 had 1-5; 5 had 6-10; and 7 had more than 10 computers. The number of computer personnel was nil in 23; 1-5 in 9; 6-10 in 1; and more than 10 in 3 ministries (5). But a recent initiative by the Ministry of Education is quite encouraging . The ministry is implementing OMR-based script examinations in secondary and higher secondary level schools and also trying to phase in basic computer courses in the elementary schools. Many donor-aided development projects under the government are being flooded with valuable pieces of branded personal computers, with no efficient manpower or effective use. These machines are being used for low-grade word processing rather than data processing or Internet access. This is no doubt wastage of resources.
Although it could do much more, still availability of online Internet service is making significant positive changes in the country. The benefits for business communications, both with respect to cost savings and speed, are noteworthy. Families with members staying abroad are welcoming the Internet for frequent and cheaper communication. Researchers are getting valuable information quickly at modest cost, which was not possible before. A multinational company source stated that the company's monthly e-mail bill has been reduced to less than US $275 from US $2,500 after the transformation of the Internet access system from international dialing to VSAT. The company would never consider such communications over faxes or phones. Other business houses and entertainment stars are gradually coming to accept the Internet as their ultimate communication tool. The ISPs are carrying out special promotional activities to provide Web page services.
A new social class is being created, mainly amongst the young generation who find the Internet an effective tool for their career development and the globalization of their thoughts and creativity. Many Internet users have stated that a whole new world has been opened to them, they are getting a new source of knowledge, and they are also making relations with many good friends and organizations worldwide. But some say that going online is a very costly habit, which sometimes appears as an addiction and causes a big waste of time. A group of young people, notably from the affluent section of the society, is abusing the Internet by using it mostly for entertainment, which is certainly not a healthy practice for a poor country like us. But the saddest news is that Bangladesh has yet to set up an academic network to provide Internet access to the large number of university teachers, students, scientists, and researchers who play vital roles in building a better nation.
For Bangladesh, the priority should be to provide Internet access to academic institutions and to the intellectual communities. Also, private users should be more encouraged to create their own access to online Internet. Having an Internet account is the primary thing, but not all: using the Internet for productive purposes and for real benefits is the main issue. From the above discussions, it is clear that high service charges by the providers, a poor telecommunication system, government policy, and low buying power of potential clients are major barriers.
But a more congenial and rational government policy may improve the whole scenario tremendously. A democratically elected government should not be governed by sacrificing the future of its people for immediate benefits. There is no reason for the BTTB to impose high costs on private VSAT use. The current charge of US $8,625 per provider per month can easily be reduced to at least US $1,000. This will encourage more providers and will ensure healthy competition between them, ultimately reducing the online charge and improving service quality. Rapid privatization of the telecommunication sector may remarkably enhance the speed of renovations through open-market competition. A national unity between the ruling party and the opposition is essential on this vital issue in order to resist workers' unrest. Unless more competitors, more investments, and more innovations are encouraged in the field, only government effort will bring proportionate value for money in this sector. National newspapers may play a key role in creating such unity. Buying power of potential clients will not immediately increase, but government may introduce lucrative consumer loan policies and may reduce taxes on computers and accessories to enable people to have their own PCs.
Now, the question comes: who will build the national academic network? Certainly, the government! For Bangladesh, we will propose two other national networks: one for health (as academic institutions for health are controlled by the Ministry of Health) and another for government administration. But the government's policy makers will require influence or pressure from external sources to establish these networks. The Internet activists should come forward to make a national lobbyist group to liaise with the government and also to mobilize the national newspapers in creating social awareness and demand. The newspapers should not depend on Western media for glamorous Internet features; rather they should publish articles for building a productive domestic policy for the Internet. Institutional support from the international donor agencies has an obvious role. The donor initiatives for building African national networks are noteworthy, and similar initiatives should immediately be started in our part of the world. The role of the World Bank and other major development agencies in formulating policy of developing countries is well known. We stress, not moral, but financial and technical assistance from these sources. The donors should take special initiative to support the government of Bangladesh to create a connection with the global information superhighway that will enable the country to obtain the cheapest and speediest access to the Internet.
The advent of the Internet kindles hope of bridging the wide information gap between north and south created over the past several decades. Nothing in human history has had greater potential to make more information more readily available to more people at low cost. A recent G7 ministerial conference on the information age reflected a widely held belief that the new technologies will hasten the integration of developing countries into the global economy, and will enable them to "leapfrog entire stages of development in setting up their own infrastructures" (6). But the question is how and when. Although the international bodies have definite responsibility to create a favorable environment, it is emphasized that the developing nations themselves should play major roles in solving their own problems. This paper has discussed many aspects of the situation in Bangladesh that may match similar conditions in other developing countries, and the recommendations might contribute in part to a solution of the problem.