This post was written by Shaddy Shadrach, A4AI’s Asia Regional Coordinator.
In 2021, Bangladesh will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence. Vision 2021 outlines a number of concrete goals for the country to achieve, with the ultimate aim of eradicating poverty and transforming Bangladesh into a middle-income nation by the time of the country’s golden jubilee. The idea of a “Digital Bangladesh” is an integral part of this vision, which views the use of ICTs and digital technologies as critical to socio-economic transformation and the achievement of the development goals outlined in the Vision 2021 framework.
Expanding broadband internet access to every citizen in Bangladesh is critical to realise Vision 2021. Access to an affordable, quality internet connection will allow citizens the opportunity to empower themselves and their communities by, for example, enabling them to access e-government services, as well as education, health and employment resources.
Today, nearly 68 million of Bangladesh’s 165 million people have internet access; 90% of these connect to the internet through mobile phones. Those that are connected are, for the most part, connecting via a slow 2G connection. Broadband use (e.g., 3G + 4G) in Bangladesh remains a low 14%.
Public access — providing internet access in spaces that are open to the public, generally for free or a low-cost — is seen by the government and stakeholders throughout Bangladesh as an important path toward expanding access for all and achieving the “Digital Bangladesh” vision. Currently, the Office of the Prime Minister’s a2i programme runs 4,500 public access centres (called Union Parishad Information Centres (UPIC)), where citizens can come to connect to the internet for a subsidised price. There are plans to develop similar facilities in over 170,000 public spaces, including schools, clinics, and union government offices.
At the first multi-stakeholder forum of the A4AI-Bangladesh Coalition — held in July 2017 — a2i highlighted the achievements of the UPIC model to date and the opportunities it presents for achieving the “Digital Bangladesh” vision, as well as challenges to the continued development and effectiveness of public access centres. Affordable broadband access, particularly in rural and remote corners of Bangladesh, was underscored as a key challenge and threat to effective public access solutions.
The a2i programme and the Domestic Network Coordination Committee — responsible for all matters relating to broadband connectivity in Bangladesh — seek to improve the country’s broadband penetration from the current rate of 14% by reforming policies and regulatory frameworks via the multi-stakeholder model employed by the A4AI-Bangladesh Coalition. Specifically, the coalition will focus on four key priority areas over the next three years, as identified by stakeholders at the first A4AI-Bangladesh Multi-stakeholder Forum:
- Strengthening the public access ecosystem, so that people across all of Bangladesh’s 45,000 villages — including in rural and remote areas — can access the internet and the information and public and private services available online, in order to improve their lives and the socio-economic outlook of their community.
- Using current telecom infrastructure and available spectrum effectively and efficiently to reduce broadband costs, and freeing up certain spectrum bands for community access initiatives.
- Analysing the tax regime to determine reductions and concessions necessary to encourage the telecom sector to deliver affordable, fast mobile internet services for all.
- Ensuring future policy-making is based on data and research, so that the critical decisions in relation to utilising the Service Obligation Fund for measures beyond connectivity and infrastructure are substantiated by data and evidence.
In the months to come, the A4AI-Bangladesh Coalition and its multi-stakeholder members will convene to consider appropriate strategies for achieving the above priorities. We would like to acknowledge the participation of the State Minister for Posts and Telecommunications, Ms Tarana Halim, the chair of BTRC, the captains of major telcos, ISPs, Infra providers, NGOs, the academia and representatives from various government departments, including that of Inland Revenue.