June 16, 2009

Digital Bangladesh: Dream or Nightmare?

The world has progressed through the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, and is poised on the brink of an information and technological revolution, in which the hallmark will be rampant change in virtually all institutions of society. Over the past few decades, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has taken the center stage to revolutionize the developed country. ICT is the backbone of any digital initiative. ICT covers the vast area of information technology, communication technology and of course the telecommunication technology; categorically processing of information and ensuring connectivity.

The wave of the revolution has also touched the developing countries like Bangladesh with massive changes. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had pledged to turn the country as a Digital Bangladesh by 2021 during election campaign in last year. I assume the idea boosted by sessions of teleconference used to communicate with the root level supporters during her election campaign. Since then, Digital Bangladesh became a slogan, a common
talking point in the country. Government officials are using this slogan each and everywhere (either applicable or not applicable). For example, while placing the national budget of 2009-2010 in parliament, finance minister A M A Muhith uttered at least twelve (12) times the term “Digital Bangladesh”.

Dream of Digital Bangladesh is achievable. But without ICT sector development the dream would only be a nightmare for the total nation. One thing needs to be mention that ICT is only a technology, a technology or a machine could not be functional without a person or governing body behind. As policy makers, the government must ensure the development is not interrupted by means of wrong policy decision making. Signs of such policies are already placed. Private companies had invested billons in this industry and also ready for more. But government intervention is making their existence at stake. How? Let us see.

Existing mobile phone operators are already struggling for not being profitable. They hoped that government would reduce tax on SIM card so that more users can be connected. But all they got in recent budget is new tax on mobile phone handsets. Is this encouraging for Digital Bangladesh? Moreover government has not issued 3G licenses for quite a long time. So opportunities for mobile operators are limited to voice based operation only. I think, this might be the reason, mobile operators are still involved in promoting (directly or indirect) illegal VOIP.

WiMAX operators paid Tk 215 crore to have BWA license. It is obvious that this huge amount had a toll on their deployment plan as neither of them able to start their test operation yet. If three hundred base stations require for network coverage in Dhaka, you can only assume the numbers to cover the whole country. Such deployment requires continuous flow of investment. But I think, they are already struggling to swallow the burden of huge license fee.

Fixed wireless ISP’s even don’t have the direction to focus on. They are limited to their own boundaries due to lack of initiatives shown by government. Though they are the first to sow seeds of Digital Bangladesh by introducing rural broadband to the country even before the government thought, lack of proper guidelines is threatening their existence. Looks like BTRC, the regulatory body, has considerations (more or less) for Mobile and WiMAX operators only and acting like a step mother to fixed wireless operators. They are like “Chagoler tin nombor Baccha”, a famous Bengali phrase (goat’s third child, is it the translation?), who fails to suck its mother milk due to the presence of other two strong brothers.

There are some other issues like high bandwidth price, absence of second submarine cables, proper ICT guidelines which need to be solved for country to step ahead.

Digital Bangladesh is an idea that includes the IT use for management, administration and governance to ensure transparency, accountability and answerability at all levels of society and state. Building of a country wide IT backbone is essential for a digital Bangladesh. With government owned BTCL, mobile operators, railway communication system, internet service providers’ total Bangladesh is already under a digital network. By a small initiative an adequate Nationwide IT backbone could be developed. In this case only government could not be sufficient. Public-Private partnership could be the ideal endeavor.

And that is where the bottle neck is!! Government should treat private companies as partners instead of viewing as treasury vaults. They are here for the business but not for the charity. We should not forget that if these companies are profitable, government should also get the benefit. Otherwise, dream of Digital Bangladesh will remain dream to the government and nightmare to the investors.


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