By any measure, Bangladesh is a country with one of the world’s lowest levels of access to telecommunications. And yet following a recent tour of the country which included visits to a number of cities as well as some of the most remote and inaccessible areas, it is clear that Bangladesh has, in a sense, already achieved near 100% ‘virtual’ market penetration rate for mobile communications services. So how do we reconcile this contradiction?
Let’s first look at the facts. According to the latest statistics issued by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), there were 65 million mobile subscribers at the end of September 2010. This represents an impressive gain of over 10 million subscribers since the start of 2010.
However, this figure translates into a market penetration rate of just 39.6%, up a mere 1.6% since the end of 2009. In terms of global penetration rates, this places Bangladesh in the bottom 10%, a situation many would say is not acceptable for the world’s seventh largest country by population.
The picture for fixed wire and internet provision is even worse, with a mere 1.03 million fixed lines serving a population of 164 million, equating to 0.94 fixed lines per 100 inhabitants. Around 1.3% of households have access to fixed wire internet.
It is statistics like this that led to the announcement of the ‘Digital Bangladesh’ programme. Inaugurated earlier this year (2010) at a reception in Dhaka attended by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, along with Dr. Hamadoun Touré of the ITU and assorted ministers, Digital Bangladesh has the ambitious goal of transforming the country’s communications by 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state.
Digital Bangladesh aims to implement e-governance, e-commerce and e-banking throughout the country and to transform the health education and business sectors by the application of third generation ICT – whatever that means. The aims may be ambitious but critics point out that the detail is worryingly vague, and questions about how it will be funded, delivered and sustained have not been answered.
Moreover, the Bangledeshi government has a poor track record of delivering on such plans, with many of its initiatives becoming mired in the red tape for which Bangladesh is legendary. Accordingly, many analysts and commentators see Digital Bangladesh as little more than a politically motivated pipe dream.
Meanwhile, back at ground level…
Whether or not Digital Bangladesh becomes a success, it is clear on the ground that access to communications services, including the internet, is already extensive and is increasing rapidly. This is being driven primarily by private enterprise and individuals who experience first hand the benefits of ICTs.
This is why looking at communications in Bangladesh purely in terms of the statistics fails to deliver a true picture of availability and access to services - and why I have suggested that Bangladesh has, in a sense, already achieved near 100% ‘virtual’ market penetration rate for mobile services.
Let me be clear here. I am not saying that the statistics are wrong or that mobile operators, infrastructure providers and handset vendors should throttle back on their expansion plans for the country. The numbers are correct and Bangladesh still represents a huge communications growth market.
But from the perspective of the individual Bangladeshi, there are now very few people who do not have almost immediate access to communications services via a mobile phone - not necessarily one that the user owns, but one that their friend, family member, neighbour or colleague does. Even in the poorest and most remote villages where tourists never visit, there will not be one phone to share around, but several.
Far from being a negative thing, this is overwhelmingly positive. It means that the benefits of improved communications are already being felt at all levels of society, not just amongst the elites. Whether it is in access to healthcare or education or in enabling the fishermen in the Sundarbans to get a better price for their Hilsha fish, the impact of mobile technology is all-pervasive. The BBC’s Janala service has delivered over 1 million English lessons to Bangladeshis and is one of the most successful and popular services ever provided by the corporation.
As we have said before here at DT, the unprecedented growth of communications now being experienced in emerging markets like Bangladesh is not being delivered by governments but by the private sector. What we see time and again is that when governments are willing to create the right regulatory environment and back off, the private sector delivers affordable, sustainable services.
People use mobile communications services because they make sense in their lives, and the ‘virtual’ access they already have stimulates even greater demand for access, as well as speeding up the achievement of actual 100% market penetration.
The next 10-15 years will be the era of mobile broadband. I saw this in Bangladesh and if it’s starting there it will be everywhere.
Since mid-2009, two mobile internet service providers - Augere Wireless (operating under the Qubee brand) and Banglalion Communications - have begun operations in Bangladesh. While both are still primarily catering for a mainly urban, middle class market, the early uptake figures are encouraging and clearly demonstrate the underlying demand for broadband wireless services.
Both companies are committed to providing country-wide coverage. Banglalion is the current market leader with coverage up and running in both Dhaka and Chittagong, and due to start later this year or early 2011 in four other major cities: Sylhet, Khulna, Rajshahi, Barisal.
Qubee meanwhile have scored what it claims is a world first by launching a pay as you go (PAYG) broadband service. Initially launched in Dhaka, Qubee’s PAYG broadband allows users to purchase 1GB and 2GB scratch cards. The 1GB is valid for 15 days while the 2GB will be valid for a period of 1 month. Qubee claims this permits users the flexibility to have always-on broadband and only pay for what they use. The service will be rolled out across Qubee’s other networks in Pakistan, Uganda and Rwanda.
Low cost handsets are the way that millions of Bangladeshis will gain their first experience of the internet, and as smartphones develop in features and fall in price, these will be the only internet access points that many people in emerging markets - as well as in the developed world - find that they need.