Against All Odds, The Internet in Bangladesh

 

Larry Press

The MOSAIC Group, Fairfax, VA, March 1999

 

 

Bangladesh is one of the poorest, most densely populated, least developed countries in the world.[1]  The populations is 127 million, and the 1997 purchasing-power parity GDP per capita was $1,330.  Major impediments to growth include frequent cyclones and floods, the inefficiency of state-owned enterprises,[2] a rapidly growing labor force that cannot be absorbed by agriculture, delays in exploiting energy resources (natural gas), inadequate power supplies, and slow implementation of economic reforms. The adult literacy rate is 38.2% (49.4% for males) and the average life expectancy at birth is 56.66 years. The telephone system is outmoded, and there are only .24 telephone lines per 100 people (95% of which are in the capital city, Dhaka).[3]  There are few nations in which it has been such an uphill battle, but Bangladesh is on the Internet.

 

The Internet in Bangladesh

 

The Internet came late to Bangladesh, with UUCP email beginning in 1993 and IP connectivity in 1996.  By July, 1997 there were an estimated 5,500 IP and UUCP accounts.  A year later, that number had grown to 13,000,[4] and today there are 22,000 accounts and an estimated 100,000 users.[5]  The number of IP accounts is estimated at 10,000xx.[6]

 

Bangladesh has 9 active ISPs in Dhaka, the capital city, and 3 others in Chittagong, the second largest city.[7]  Larger  ISPs connect to the Internet using 64 or 128 kbps VSATS and a few smaller ones are downstream from those.  In 1997, a 64-k half-circuit to Singapore cost $58,600 per year,[8]  and international links are obtained through the Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB) of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. A number of Cyber cafes have opened recently in Dhaka, and many Bangladeshi have email accounts with Hotmail or other advertiser-supported email services.[9]

 

BTTB has begun providing Internet service to some government agencies, and is expected to offer commercial service soon.  They also plan public-access facilities, ISDN at the few digital exchanges in Dhaka and Chittagong, and a fiber backbone.  There was an opportunity to obtain an undersea cable landing in 1991, but the government did not feel the cost could be justified at that time.[10]  The State Railways have an underutilized fiber network, but have been unwilling thus far to let others share it.[11]

 

There is no .bd top-level domain, because the ISPs and other interested parties have been unable to agree on an impartial administrator.  BTTB applied to APNIC, but was turned down as not being representative of the networking community.  (They were not an ISP at the time).  A 7-organization ISP Forum of Bangladesh was formed, and In November, 1997, UNDP funded a visit from APNIC to try to work out a satisfactory coalition, but that failed to produce results because of mistrust.[12]  In the interim, Bangladeshi register in .com, .org, or .net.  Matrix Information and Directory Services estimates that there are roughly 400 hosts and 30 domains in the country.[13]

 

Universities often pioneer networking in developing nations, but that has not been the case in Bangladesh. The reluctance of universities is illustrated by the case of AGNI Systems.  AGNI founder Nawab Kabir offered to establish UUCP service for his university while a business student there.  When they refused, he dropped out to become an ISP, and the university is now a paying customer.  Initial efforts in Bangladesh were led by private firms and NGOs.  Four of the larger ISPs are today affiliated with NGOs, although they may be operating as purely commercial ventures at this time.

 

The Bangladeshi Internet is just beginning to emerge, with a ranking of 1 on each of our dimensions.

 

 

Dimension

Level

Explanation

Pervasiveness

1

There are very few users, accounts or domains per capita.

Geographic dispersion

1

There is connectivity in only two cities.

Sectoral absorption

1

No sector (government, commercial, education or health) has the 10% adoption rate necessary for a higher rating.

Connectivity infrastructure

1

Total international bandwidth is below T1, and there is no domestic backbone, Internet exchange or high-speed connectivity.

Organizational infrastructure

1

Local organizations are not cooperative.

Sophistication of use

1

The primary applications are email and FAX as substitutes for mail and telephone.  This has not led to qualitative organization or cultural change.

 

 

Constraints on Internet Growth

 

The explanations for this slow start are typical of emerging nations.  Internet growth depends upon telecommunication infrastructure, computing and networking equipment, human resources, and an active, supportive government.[14]  As in many developing nations, the Bangladeshi Internet is hobbled by poor telecommunication infrastructure, a lack of computing and networking equipment, few human resources, and an indifferent, bureaucratic government.

 

The Internet requires underlying telecommunication infrastructure, and low teledensity combined with virtually no digitization, has clearly constrained ISP growth in Bangladesh.  For example, in June, 1998 Grameen Cybernet, one of the largest ISPs, had over 4,000 users sharing 64 dial-up lines.  Their central office was saturated, and they stated that if another were added, it too would be immediately saturated.[15]  Average waiting time for a telephone is over ten years.[16]  This situation is the product of bureaucracy as well as poverty.  BTTB is a government monopoly,[17] and the approval and tender process for a new exchange takes one and a half years.[18]  BTTB also licenses satellite links which all of the ISPs use.  Grameen applied for their VSAT license in 1992, but did not get it until 1995.  This delayed their entry in the market to July, 1996.[19]  An independent Telecom Regulatory Commission is currently being established and could be operational by mid-1999.[20]

 

The Internet also requires computing and networking equipment.  BTTB sub-contracts the purchase of  satellite equipment, and contracts for connectivity in Singapore, Hong Kong or the US.  BTTB sets the rate for the BD half-circuit, but the ISP is free to negotiate the second half circuit and connection charges.  This equipment and uplink subcontracts add an estimated 25% to the networking cost.[21]  The situation would be improved if the ISPs shared a common high speed uplink, and BTTB is considering such a service as well as eventual connection to a marine cable.[22]

 

While the cost of networking equipment is significant in a developing nation, scarcity of personal computers are a greater constraint, and Bangladesh has made recent progress in this area.  In June, 1998, the Government withdrew all import duties and VAT from all computer hardware and software.  Prices have dropped dramatically, and the number of computers sold rose from 40,000 to 120,000 in 1998.[23]  An 80-90% annual growth in the number of PCs sold is expected this year.[24]  Since only a small fraction of organizations and individuals can afford a computer, public-access facilities will play an important role.

 

Human resources -- technicians and trained, demanding users -- are also critical.  Networking has not been a priority in Bangladeshi universities, but that may be beginning to change.  In June, 1997, the government established a Task Force on Export and appointed a Committee to review the problems and prospects of software export from Bangladesh and formulate recommendations on promotion of software export.  This prestigious committee was headed by Prof. Jamilur Reza Choudhury,[25] and its September, 1997 report contained a number of recommendations for improving IT education.[26]  As a result, the government has placed top-most priority on human resource development in the IT field.  At present, the annual output of graduates in the IT field would be around 500. What Bangladeshi IT education lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality.  The team from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) won their regional competition, and placed 24th (above many highly reputed US universities) in the ACM Programming contest last year in Atlanta, and they have repeated as regional champions this year.

 

The government's target is to produce 10,000 programmers annually by the year 2001.[27]  The consultation and participation of Bangladeshi technicians and entrepreneurs living abroad can also play a significant role here.

 

Large numbers of trained, demanding users will be more difficult to achieve.  The small personal computer installed base and poverty in primary and secondary education pose sever hurdles.  The high level of illiteracy and dearth of software or content in the Bangla language are also problems.   While the educated middle class and technicians speak English, pervasive use of the Internet will be constrained for many years by the language barrier.

 

To date, the government has been largely indifferent toward the Internet and information technology; however, the commissioning of the Report on Export of Computer Software may signal change.  The report made 45 specific recommendations, the  first of which was the elimination of duties and taxes which has been implemented with good results.  Many of the other measures will have a positive effect on the Internet if they are carried out. 

 

In some nations, government caution with respect to the Internet is partially explained by fear that it will undermine national security, cultural values or the political regime.  Bangladesh is a Moslem nation, but not a theocracy, and the fundamentalist party gets only 3-5% of the vote, though their impact is greater than that. The government is aware of religious, political and pornographic censorship, but these issues have not been critical in decisions regarding the Internet.[28]

 

These constraints are among the most formidable faced by the Internet in any nation, yet it has taken root and begun to grow.  Bangladesh has been atypical in the degree to which NGOs have been instrumental in establishing the Internet there, but if they are to move to a higher level on any of our dimensions, the government, universities, and industry will also have to become involved.



[1] Central Intelligence Agency, The 1998 World Factbook, http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/bg.html.

[2] A privatization board is working on this problem, but their work must be balanced against the needs of current employees of government-owned organizations, xx.

[3] ITU, 1997 Asia-Pacific Telephone Indicators, Geneva, 1997.

[4] Nawab Kabir, founder and Managing Director, AGNI Systems, interview, Julyxx, 1998.

[5] Jamilur Reza Choudhury, Information Technology in Bangladesh, January, 1999.

[6] Geoff Long, Bangladesh, PanASIA Yearbook, xx

[7] Geoff Long, Bangladesh, PanASIA Yearbook, xx

[8] Project Document, PAN Bangladesh, January, 1997, http://www.panasia.org.sg/.  Nawab Kabir, founder and Managing Director, AGNI Systems, estimated the cost at $9,500 per month during an interview in Julyxx, 1998.

[9] Nawab Kabir reported that these free accounts make it more difficult to collect service bills since a customer who is unable to pay can shift to another ISP and keep the same email address.

[10] Kamal Uddin Bhuiyan, Economic/Commercial Specialist, United States Embassy, feels that BTTP resisted the cable landing, interview, Julyxx, 1998.

[11] Geoff Long, Bangladesh, PanASIA Yearbook, xx

[12] Nawab Kabir, founder and Managing Director, AGNI Systems, interview, Julyxx, 1998.

[13] John Quarterman, President, MIDS, Personal communication, July, 19xx. 

[14] Press, L., "Developing Networks in Less Industrialized Nations," IEEE Computer, vol. 28 No 6, June, 1995, PP 66-71.

[15] Ghulam Mohiuddin, Managing Director, Grameen Cybernet, interview, July, 1998.

[16] World Telecommunication Development Report, 1995, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva.

[17] In the rural areas there is a separate Rural Telecom Authority, and two companies have been licensed to provide wired telephone service.  They have exclusive territories and do not compete.  Cellular service is private and there are xx providers.

[18] M. Ferdans Al Amin, Engineer, Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, interview, Julyxx, 1998.

[19] Ghulam Mohiuddin, Managing Director, Grameen Cybernet, interview, Julyxx, 1998.

[20] Geoff Long, Bangladesh, PanASIA Yearbook, xx

[21] Nawab Kabir, founder and Managing Director, AGNI Systems, interview, Julyxx, 1998.

[22] Jamilur Reza Choudhury, interview, Julyxx, 1988.

[23] Geoff Long, Bangladesh, PanASIA Yearbook,

[24] Jamilur Reza Choudhury, Information Technology in Bangladesh, January, 1999.

[25] Professor Choudhury is an internationally known civil engineer who served as a minister during the previous interim government and has been at the forefront of Internet development in Bangladesh.

[26] Report on Export of Computer Software from Bangladesh, Problems and Prospects, Ministry of Commerce, Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, September, 1997.

[27] Jamilur Reza Choudhury, Information Technology in Bangladesh, January, 1999

[28] Les Viguerie, Economic/Commercial Officer, interview, Julyxx, 1998.