Covid-19 has underscored the importance of access to the internet. Without access to reliable and meaningful connectivity, billions of people risk being further cut off from vital information on health and safety, online learning, and the opportunity to voice their views and engage in e-commerce.
As the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic, the people of Bangladesh have had to battle another crisis – a destructive cyclone and devastating monsoon floods. During this period, lives have been lost, businesses and organisations have been disrupted, and sections of the population were cut off from essential services — including access to the internet, an important lifeline in times of crisis. Despite these challenges, the government and private sector have been working earnestly to restore vital services and to ensure internet access.
The Aspire to Innovate Programme (a2i) and Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) have a partnership that shares a common goal of promoting activities to advance affordable access and meaningful connectivity to mobile and fixed-line internet in Bangladesh. The role of Bangladesh government, private sector, civil society, development partners, and regulatory commission in fostering and developing response plans to expand internet access and ensure there’s uninterrupted internet access during a pandemic and other calamities is critical.
To learn about what each sector is doing in response to Covid-19, A4AI and a2i organised an online forum on ‘Managing Internet Access through Crisis: Lessons and Opportunities for Bangladesh’. The webinar explored challenges and opportunities of connecting the unconnected during Covid-19 and other disasters. The keynote speaker was Anir Chowdhury, policy advisor of a2i, and speakers included Brig. Gen. Md. Mahfuzul Karim Majumder, Director General at Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, Claire Sibthorpe, Head of Digital Inclusion, Connected Women, Connected Society, and Assistive Technology at GSMA, Krista Baptista, Head of the Center for Digital Acceleration at DAI, and Shahid Uddin Akbar, A4AI Bangladesh National Coordinator.
If you missed the webinar, you can watch the recording below.
Driving down the cost to connect to the internet is a priority for the Government
The Government of Bangladesh has been mobilising efforts and resources to combat the Covid-19. The government’s bottom-up approach and execution to ensure the setting up of the 5,000-digital-centre national ICT infrastructure network for its Info-Sarker-3 project connecting the lowest administrative tier of the government and grassroots level citizens has been a key priority. Under the project, a high-speed internet backbone has been established in all ministries, government directorates, and departments in all 64 districts. This initiative ensures that government ministries and departments are connected to the internet.
The Government of Bangladesh is working on initiatives to ensure that citizens have access to smartphones and the right digital skills. As per the A4AI’s recently launched report on device pricing and affordability, cost is still the biggest barrier to internet access in many countries, especially in Africa and Asia-Pacific. In Bangladesh, a person has to save seven days of salary to buy the cheapest smartphone device.
Bangladesh has a digital gender gap that needs to be tackled, where women are still 52% less likely to use mobile internet than men. Affordability, lack of literacy and skills, safety and security, and family disapproval are the major challenges to using mobile internet. To ensure digital equality, the government needs to explore ways to reduce the cost of mobile internet access and look at providing incentives, so both men and women can reap the benefits of using mobile data using smartphones.
Technology and the internet have been instrumental in contact tracing
The keynote speaker, Anir Chowdhury from a2i, highlighted that Bangladesh has been responding to the crisis using digital technologies in line with the Digital Bangladesh initiative to reach their goals by 2021. Chowdhury mentioned that a2i, in partnership with the telecom operators, has been using digital technologies such as syndromic surveillance to identify where the high-risk cases are and where the largest disease-affected areas are. He further added that the government is also urging people to share Covid-19 related health information through their mobile phones. Together with the mobile operators, they set up free SMS and call system *3332# to encourage mobile users to provide health-information by self-reporting.
Mobile telecoms sector keeps adapting to ensure connectivity is maintained
Claire Sibthorpe from GSMA highlighted the importance of the mobile industry as a key player in mitigating the spread of Covid-19. She commended the efforts of the government in providing internet access and extending customer account validity so people can stay connected. Sibthrope reiterated that it’s important for mobile operators to ensure that people have data, and to support people who are unable to recharge or face difficulties in getting connected during a crisis.
Regulatory incentives offered to provide immediate access to the internet
The Bangladesh government and the telecommunication regulator declared telecom services as emergency services during Covid-19. The Director-General, Brig. Gen. Md. Mahfuzul Karim Majumder said, ‘Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) ensured that there wasn’t any bottleneck in any of the processes – they ensured that there was network stability during the Covid-19 crisis’. He further added that BTRC continues to support the operators, and they are available to provide immediate assistance in case of an emergency to deliver continuous access to the internet.
Entrepreneurship and Investment
The Digital Bangladesh vision clearly highlights the importance of human resource development, people involvement, civil services and use of information technology. The UNESCAP’s APCICT-led Women ICT Frontiers Initiative (WIFI) offers women entrepreneurs digital and ICT skills to manage their small businesses. A4AI Bangladesh National Coordinator Shahid Uddin Akbar said, ‘It was critical for women entrepreneurs to be online to ensure that they were able to carry out their businesses using digital technologies’. He further added that Covid-19 had revealed the potential of ICTs and the use of internet services – smartphones have been highlighted as meaningful connectivity, but many people in Bangladesh still don’t have access to smartphones. It’s important for industries and governments to develop solutions that are available to basic or feature phone users.
Digital can support an ecosystem approach to development
Digital can support an ecosystem approach to development, said Krista Baptista from DAI. “It’s important to look across different sectors and amplify the efforts of the government and private sector in bringing digital tools to support Covid-19.” Krista highlighted that DAI has been working through a USAID funded programme in a number of countries to look at regulatory policies, e-commerce, and e-government legislations. She further added that DAI has been connecting with citizens in Asia to improve their digital literacy and raise people’s cyber awareness, particularly for small and medium enterprises who are using digital tools to conduct online transactions. Baptista explained that it’s important to assess cyber risks and look at responding to incidents through digital platforms.
To enable an ecosystem approach and to drive down the internet costs and enable affordability, the following recommendations are needed:
- Collaboration with the private sector to ensure uninterrupted access to the internet
- Public-Private Partnership (PPP) investments that combine funding and support from development partners to improve connectivity in Bangladesh
- Incentives, such as ICT sector-specific taxation relief, that could support development
- Support industry efforts to lower the costs of internet-enabled mobile phones, especially smartphones
- Ensure digital literacy and ICT skills training and provide gender-sensitive skills training to address the gender digital gap
- Continue and increase ongoing efforts on cyber safety awareness to respond to incidents through digital platforms
- Work together – development partners, government, and organisations should work together to support design thinking approaches in Bangladesh
- Raise the bar on meaningful connectivity for everyone in Bangladesh, through a multistakeholder national coalition
Finally, to achieve the goal of Digital Bangladesh and universal access, the government, civil society, private sector, academia, telecom, and mobile operators will have to collaborate to reach a meaningful connectivity standard and adopt gender-responsive policymaking in broadband strategies, ICT policies, and investments.