Grameenphone and The Daily Star have recently organised a roundtable on "Empowering societies through internet for all".
Here we publish a summary of the discussion.
Mahfuz Anam, Editor& Publisher, The Daily Star
As a journalist I am involved with many 'for all' type campaign and promises for example: 'education for all', 'fresh water for all', 'housing for all' and many other 'for all' campaigns. I think among these 'for all' issues 'internet for all' is the most doable and reachable because of the revolution in communication technology. In Bangladesh, the infrastructure of internet has gone through phenomenal growth and made the service affordable for a large group of population. Deep penetration of mobile phones has also played a key role in popularizing internet.
I have been meeting bachelor level students who are already running e-business on their own. Few days ago, I ran into a house of a rural woman who quite unbelievably set up his own e-business through internet. So the motivation, particularly the prospect of very small e-businesses, gives us enormous incentive to make 'internet for all' a truly people driven possibility.
It is also an opportunity for e-governance which for a country like Bangladesh is enormously important. This should give the government an incentive to promote internet. I see a very unique combination of people driven urge and government driven policy towards internet. This convergence of bottom up and top down approaches is a unique combination and I think internet is right at the centre of this convergence. This really encourages me to believe that ' internet for all' is really an achievable target.
We have also heard about great equalizers. Democracy is a great equalizer. Free market is great equalizer. Internet is truly a far greater equalizer among any of these things. Internet is a great modernizer too. It is the great bridging the gap phenomena. It can breach the gap between rich and poor countries, rich and poor people within a country, between rural and urban population of a country and so on.
Bangladesh is a lucrative country for the spread of internet because of its high density of population. High density of population is usually looked as a burden but for internet it is a blessing. Given Bangladesh's huge population, living within such a small geographic territory, the per capita cost of infrastructure building is among the cheapest in the world. Per capita usage of internet in one km in Bangladesh will be far higher than anywhere in the world. So the per capita investment for infrastructure gives you far higher per capita user of internet.
When Telenor first introduced their mobile phone service in Bangladesh, I was told that they had a target of a million customers at most. So it has been a mental limitation rather than a physical limitation which was at the centre of mobile penetration. Now mobile penetration has broken the barriers of our imagination. It has proved that Bangladeshi people are eager to adopt a user friendly effective technology for communication. With the penetration of mobile phone, the next step is internet. And we all see the signs of fast rate of adoption of internet. So all in all, from the point of view of democracy, from the point of view of prosperity, from point of view of the equalizing the gaps that exists in Bangladesh, internet is a fantastic solution. I as an individual, journalist and editor, fully convinced that this is the direction we should go for.
Vivek Sood , CEO, Grameenphone
One year back, we used to pick up phone and talk to somebody. That was the first purpose of the phone. But now all of us look at the website and see what's there in the news. We are using social media to communicate with our friends. The world is changing very fast. Face to face conversation is actually going down year by year. That means we are doing more interaction through different mediums of social media, mobile, voice conversation and so on. We are also now moving from voice communication to data communication. Now we should find out ways how these changes can be converted into oppourtunities and how can we take the leverage of using it for the success of the country and development of the society.
Grameenphone is moving away from communication to being connected. Being connected we mean one on many or many on one. So it is not just that you have to be in conversation with another one on the other side but also being able to get knowledge or some services that actually serve your business and other needs.
Governments' vision of making Digital Bangladesh is very much similar to our goal. It is very encouraging that we are all thinking and looking at the same direction. If we look at things from Grameenphone perspective, we started 17 years ago, we had first one million after five years, next one million within the same year and now we have 48 million subscribers. It has been growing at a very fast pace. It happens due to couple of initiatives. First thing we had to be very aggressive about the investment. We ensured that the whole country can be covered through mobile network. And the entire network is internet enable. This happened with the support of various stakeholders. But it is very different when we talk about internet. Here we need to create a proper ecosystem so that people can learn how to use internet and then use it. We are providing world class mobile services. That happens due to the use of the best in class technology and infrastructure.
Internet for all is the second step forward for us. So we have initiated mobile internet. 10% increase in data penetration actually results in .5% increase in GDP of a country. If we look at the telecommunication sector on a whole, we contribute 1.2% in the GDP. But if you add its impact on productivity around 5% of the GDP comes from the telecommunication sector. In period of time, there will be much more impact with the data growth especially in a country like Bangladesh which is in the early state of prosperity.
Businessmen will have much more information about their product services, customers, markets and so on which will enhance their productivity. This is very important for Bangladesh. It is fundamentally different from developed countries. For example, here 80% students go for private tuition. If we can provide them online education services then it will significantly reduce the cost of education.
In case of agriculture, if the farmer gets easy information about seed, weather, market prices he will get more production and good price from market. It will empower him significantly.
When we look at internet there are three things which are considered as challenges. First one is how do we enable internet for everybody? It's about technology, affordable devices, application platform which are available for new applications to be developed and so on. Once we enable use of internet then comes the challenge of how do you stimulate use of internet. One of the biggest hurdles we see is lack of awareness. 5% of the people do not know either what internet can do for them or they do not how to use internet. This is the second challenge. Now the third challenge, do we have enough products to serve our customers? Facebook and social media cannot cover all of them. I think they need particular form of applications like health, agriculture and so on to meet their real life needs.
There has to be a sustainable model for internet. It is important how do you price interent. Pricing right way is very important. Pricing gets driven by the price of bandwidth or price of connection but it should be driven by the services we offer. For example services that go down to masses should be affordable for all.
One of the key areas will be form of collaboration between different stakeholders because developing the ecosystem of internet is not as simple as the development of the ecosystem of mere communication. It will involve the regulators, the government, application makers, device manufacturers, students and other relevant stakeholders. This involves fairly a large number of people. When we talk about all that means 164 million people. We will reach them gradually. All those who have access to devices which can be used for internet should be reached first. We have the target of reaching 50% of our base within 4-5 years. We want everybody's support to make it happen.
Anders Hallin, Chief Strategy Officer, Telenor Digital
Ecosystem of the market is really important when we talk about services. This ecosystem is not built by huge companies. It is built by developers who want to build good services. Media can play a role in building this ecosystem. Media have to highlight different initiatives so that entrepreneurs feel encouraged and new entrepreneurs come to innovate new services.
Aminur Rashid, Chairman, Symphony
Main forces of our economy are poor people and most of them are illiterate. For using internet you need at least some literacy. So it is a big challenge. How can we overcome it?
Mobile phone is driving the internet market. 40% smart phone users are not internet users. It is another challenge.
It is also important how they use it. Many of them use it only for entertainment. So we have to think about the usage of internet also.
Fayaz Taher , CEO, Fortuna Group
Gradual Penetration of internet should be simultaneous with reduction of internet cost and cost of device. It would help expand the market and create opportunities for investors.
The question of monetization is also very important. If you cannot monetize the market how will you attract investors?
Consumer must also get a utility. That means they would be able to get contents that is useful in a fast and affordable way and those content will facilitate their personal and professional communication. Then they will use internet out of their need.
Mustafa Jabbar, President, Bangladesh Computer Samity
I want to focus on five areas. First one is price. A major change can be achieved through withdrawal of 15% vat on usage of internet. We are struggling for that. In the next budget the vat should be withdrawn. This is one of the major factors for the high cost of internet. All stakeholders should campaign for it. Operators can also help in reducing the cost of internet. Pricing policy and packages should be very simple and cost-effective.
Second issue is coverage. Unless we cover the whole Bangladesh with 3G, 'internet for all' will just remain a dream. It is important that every inch of the country is covered by 3G network.
Third issue is content. Education is one of the key areas where we have to do significant development. The whole syllabus from primary to higher education can be transferred into digital content and brought to digital class room. Entertainment can be another area. We are yet to develop an entertainment industry. Agriculture and healthcare are other important areas to focus on.
Fourth major issue is language. Prime Minister has sent a message in roman alphabet to poor people and they does not understand it. So it does not carry any value for them. In our existing system a farmer has to sign an English paper to buy a SIM but he does not understand what is written in the paper. So, how can we address these huge mass of people in English language? There is a government order that mobiles have to be compatible with Bangla. But 90% of our mobiles are not compatible with Bangla.
Security is another issue. There have been complaints about security of SIM cards. So it becomes really difficult to popularize mobile money transfer and other economic activities. Many people become victim of internet fraud or harassment. Is there any complain centre where we can talk about this issue?
Asif Saleh, Senior Director, Strategy, Communications and Capacity, Brac
Government has to play a key role in building ecosystem for internet. When we put together the map of fiber optic cable we found that half of Bangladesh have already been covered but remains idle. Initially the problem will be that the demand will not be that much high. So, government has to play some patronization role. For sustainability it will ultimately go to the private sector but the government has to facilitate the process primarily.
Creating relevant services and content is crucial in creating an ecosystem. For example, mobile banking has become another revolution. bKash have got 11million users within 2 years. The bottom point is that if you generate relevant services for customers, they will be interested.
There are gaps where technology can play a big role. Recently, we have started a pilot project where students call up our call centres for online tutoring. We are getting very positive feedbacks. These types of initiatives will really make the education system more cost-effective.
In terms of language the policy should be that you can send a message in Bangla whatever operator you have or whatever set you use. That needs a lot of collaboration from the government.
I think a big scale collaboration need a large scale systematic change. Right now, we need to focus on ensuring access to broad band internet at a minimum speed to make it working and effective.
M. A. Mubin Khan, Managing Director, EATL
When the US government had made it mandatory to fill up DV form through internet, it reached even to village people. I think our government should make submission of any government service documents through internet. I hope, it will bring a remarkable change.
Our telcos are expending millions of taka for 3G . But without internet expansion it will not come into fruition. Initially market insiders thought that financing would be a major obstacle for expansion of internet but a survey revealed that three issues are important here: top management initiative, legal issues and inadequate power supply.
S M Ashfaque Hussain, Executive Director, Bangladesh Computer Council
The government reduced the price from 10,000 to 5000 taka. We wanted to see some reflection of it from customer's point of view. But most of the internet providers, who provides internet through SIM card, have not reduced the cost at customer point proportionately. I am bit confused that whether price reduction from the government will really reduce price at the customer point.
We have recently developed some speed hungry softwares. We are also planning for services that will go to upazillas. So I need speed through SIM card. Here I am not talking about fiber cable. To reach upazilla through fiber cable will take more time. So we need some solution through SIM card.
In terms of education content, we have 3 platforms : ICT learning platform, Shikshok batayon which is a shared knowledge platform and e-tothyo kosh developed by A2I . All of these platforms have Bengali content. It covers up to SSC level. We are still working on improving the contents.
Bengali enable service is already available. You can use Bengali SMS but the problem is that it is not compatible with cheap mobiles and old sets. In new sets you will get all facilities in Bengali.
We are also developing e-services in other sectors. Now farmers get porcha from UIC and it costs only 50 taka whereas it will take 500 taka if you go to any middleman. taka which could have been take 500 by middlemens. Now, anyone can register for immigration from their upazilla and it takes only 50 taka. It has irked private agents who used to take huge amount money for that simple purpose.
All the DC offices are now using e-files. We are expanding it up to ministry and down to upazilla. We are using a bottom up approach.
One year back, we used to use 32 MB bandwidth and now we use 500 MB bandwidth. We are developing everything quietly. Now government should go for campaign and advertise so that people can learn about these developments.
We need high speed wireless internet to go down to upazilla level. I am urging all the operators to help us in doing this.
Bandwidth is just 5 % of our price. If the government wants us to buy spectrum at such a high cost, we have to comprise investment in infrastructure building. Price is always combination of speed and bandwidth. Beyond that price has to be based on services and affordability.
In 3G, we are at the primary level. We will do more optimization. By march, we will cover 64 district towns. We will keep it optimizing. To reach rural areas we need more investment and more time. Our current technology and spectrum are not adequate for rural areas. It also needs high amount investment. That's why we are looking for low band spectrum with much higher reach. We do not have technology neutrality. We have 3 bandwidths but we cannot use it interchangeably. We need to talk to the government about this. It is important to determine whether the government wants to get some money just selling spectrum or take long term view on that and make spectrum service economically affordable and viable for operators so that they can cover the whole country in a faster way.
Russel T. Ahmed, Secretary General, Basis
Price is not an issue. Application will actually drive the usage. Have we ever seen a particular application that actually changes our lifestyle? We mainly do facebooking and emailing.
I want to focus on execution of our plans. Few weeks ago, we declared a vision of one Bangladesh. We declared 3 major pillars: one billion export by 2018, one million professional by 2018 and one crore user every year.
We are closely working with the ICT ministry. We have dropped a DPP of approximately 300 crore taka of which 50% will be used in application development project which include public service applications. Left 50% will be used for infrastructure development. We have submitted a proposal for developing gaming institutions and training institutions in all seven divisions. And we will touch 64 districts. We believe until and unless we can prepare proper content, internet will not fly. Our operators have invested for world class mobile technology. But do we have world class content or internet? Our content has to be of global standard. Keeping that perspective in mind we have to develop our facilities.
Foundation is the infrastructure. We have good foundation. Now we need to build pillars. If we can finalize those pillar like internet for education, internet for health , internet for agriculture, internet for entertainment, internet for rural and internet for financial services and make sure what will its feature and how to develop it then automatically the interior will take place and finally the roof and ceiling will be government and industries. So Grameenphone should define the pillar rather than just internet for all. Basis will be with you.
Why media have only quarter page for IT? Media do not pay attention to IT. So how there will be awareness? There are many success stories of content. What we require is awareness and intention. I will also request Grameenphone to develop business friendly environment so that local developer can come with new ideas and content. Our developers are fantastic in developing. We have moved to the top 10 of IRS development. We have some limitation also. We do not know how to do the marketing in the global market.
85% rural teachers who teach math they themselves learned math at the SSC level. One good teacher can only teach 33 students in a class room. But he can teach 33 million students through online. This is a huge scope.
Shahid Uddin Akbar, CEO, Bangladesh Institute of ICT in Development (BIID)
The biggest challenge is lack of relevant content. The major chunk of our population is farmer. We are missing the part of integration of ICT in agriculture. At every phase of agriculture, information is key and internet can play a vital role here. Government should have an e-agriculture strategy. National Agriculture Strategy should be integrated with ICT.
Everyone comes with hardware based solution. Tothoykosh developed by A2I is not regularly updated. We need updated and regular contribution.
Munir Hasan, General Secretary, Bangladesh Math-Olympiad
Bangladesh is the only country where 15% vat will continue for ever. We are insensitive to it.
Internet is a great equalizer. It will change your life. I know some students who spend more money for internet than housing. Bangladesh earns 1.1 crore taka everyday through oursourcing. One thousand new connections will create 8 new jobs. Some of the youths are using social media to promote their products.
It is also important for media. We have to promote our entrepreneurs. We have to promote user generated contents like wikipedia.
Ahteram Uddin, Marketing Director, Opera Browses, South Asia
Connectivity is productivity. 80% users of opera mini are users of facebook. It does not alone add value. Many people have internet enabled mobile phones but they do not use internet. We have attract these users to mobile internet.
Pubudu Basnayake, Chief Operating Officer, Microsoft Bangladesh Limited
In Bangladesh, the internet is too costly to get a large number of users. For getting standard services you need standard speed of internet. So Bangladesh users are not able to get benefit from many useful internet services.
There is a lack of useful apps in Bangladesh that can really help people to get effectively engaged to meet their real needs. So we have work on it.
In terms of devices we are looking for cheaper devices. We are looking cheap smart set that key adopt apps. Now we are looking for important issues on areas which are development for this country. Recently we have come up with bus apps by which you know about buses in each route. We will be happy to know more about it.
In terms of local language support we are committed to develop local language abled softwares particularly windows.
Erland Prestgard, Head of Strategy, Grameenphone
If we have right regulation and spectrum we will provide cheap services in terms of data. We are doing free wikipedia, zero.facebook and so on. We are talking that facebook does not add value to people's life. That may be true. We should not judge how people enter into internet. We should make them enter into internet and they will learn how to use it effectively.
Price is also about affordability. In the last few years our average price has gone down about half and the decline is accelerating. If we make right package for right people it will be relevant and affordable for them.
Complexity is an important issue. If everyone offer the same package then it will be really difficult to reach to lowest 50% of our population. So our package should simpler and affordable.
Speed is important. When we introduce 3G there is an explosion of data. There are new types of activities people are doing in 3G. We would like to offer 3G to the entire country. We will introduce WIMAX for cities and for high speed internet we have 3G, then we will be rolling out 3G more and more when people will buy 3G handset. 3G will follow where the demand is. We will also like to provide wi-fi and fiber. It is a bit of regulatory issue. We have limitations on rolling that out. We would love to have that ability to freely do that. We think it matters. For example putting Wi-Fi in universities will be very interesting for us. But we are not allowed to do that.
Operators can provide connectivity. We should focus on connectivity. We are eagerly and actively looking for really good services and ready to back them with our full force. We have specific initiatives in education, health and agriculture.. And we are really looking for right services. Khan Academy is very good but too complicated for Bangladesh. We need an alternative. We are ready to back such initiatives.
If every education institution in this country can have half a day internet education during next 24 months it will be a worth investment. Students are the leaders in internet. They are the ones who want it fast, understand it best and find it more natural to use.
S M Ashfaque Hussain
I am really happy to see you are in favour of reducing from 15% to 0. Bangladesh has slashed 50% last year and it is going to slash the price 50% more. I do not see the statutory obligation of 15% vat as an issue. In coming few months government is going to introduce 25,000 websites which will stimulate our internet market more. When I enter into play store I find so many free Bengali apps . We are going to take effective programmes in Apps development in coming years. The government is very committed to promote ICT in the whole country.
Anir Chowdhury, Policy Adviser, A2I Programme
We do not have to be worried too much about apps. The market will take care of itself. We need two things: internet within low cost and high speed. There are 1,56,000 institutions within the government that need low cost and high speed internet immediately.
Taro Araya, CEO, Bangla Trac Miaki VAS
We are running 789 which is basically a health service and 27676, an agri-service. The experience and the willingness to pay of a is very much related. It is not about bringing price down. The willingness to pay will be pressing if you are able to back to the user. We talk about facebook. It is fantastic as you get access to lot of information which bring benefits to a user. For sometimes, I find it difficult to monetize agricultural services because a farmer is not willing to pay because lack of this information will not risk his livelihood. But when you talk about health services, the willingness to pay is very high because you are in a vulnerable situation. You want immediate solution to this vulnerability. And that's why you are willing to pay for it.
Three as are very important: accessibility, affordability and awareness. In terms of accessibility our operators are fantastic. They should help us more to get with government so that we can access to overall coverage and reach everywhere in the country. In terms of affordability, the operator and regulator should care for that so that we can get internet at affordable prices. Awareness is the really difficult part. It is a basic service. It is like water and energy. For young generation it is a basic need because they need to be connected. Government and non-government, media should work together to make people aware about content and services. If we can give a user something back he will be willing to pay for that.
Taking an entrepreneurial approach can solve a lot of problem. We have to find out how the developer, investor and companies can really develop through providing internet based services. If they do not know how to make money out of it they will go at a slower rate. If you monetize the internet market and figure out ways of easy and faster rate of return we will see how market develops.
Russel T Ahmed
I want to point to three things. Why price has become an issue? In Bangladesh we can not upload paid apps in the apps store. We usually upload free apps. When a user find 20MB to upload it will cost him 20 taka so it is not an free app. That's why the price is very important.
Why vat has become an issue? Government should declare internet a basic service. If the government can subsidize electricity and gas, then why they want to profit from internet? Recently, our telecom minister has pledged to ensure that internet will be available at the same price around the country.
Local payment system should be used so that our local developer can get paymet locally and upload paid up apps.
The biggest challenge in education is fear of internet from parent or teacher. They forbid students not to use internet. We have been running Champs21 for last three years and now, it has the highest TRP as a singular TV programme. In the third year, the first round of spelling bee is completely on internet. Students have to log into Champs21.com and they have to play a game. This year we have seen three hundred thousand participants using internet. So if you can give them right content and maintain awareness it happens. So our parents and teachers should be made aware about education facilities through internet. We have to go beyond text books and beyond Bangladeshi borders.
When I go to Grameenphone to talk about internet based project, they advice me to come up with SMS-based project. Their ecosystem is SMS-based. This need to be improved into internet based ecosystem.
Zakia Zerin, Head of Digital & Social Media Unit, Grameenphone
I have three points. We have missed the key point of experience. We are providing internet to the users. We need to ensure that they experience the internet in a right way. 80-85% people in Bangladesh are accessing internet through mobile. But how are we making their experience in terms of when they are entering a website through a mobile. Few days ago we have launched an online-top up service so that our customers can recharge their mobile through internet. But the site is not mobile optimized. So when a user is entering the site S/he is not getting a good experience.
Content is the key. We should make the contents useful for customers so that they hook to different apps and make those apps part of their life.
We have a very good programme named Alo Ashbei for young app developers. They are coming up with different kinds of apps. Unfortunately, these apps cannot be downloaded in our country because our users do not have access into play store or apple store. They do not get access to paid apps though some of those apps are really useful for them. I think, Bangladesh Bank can play a key role here and make necessary financil arrangements so that we can get paid up apps through proper money transferring channels.
Tanzina Hossain, Finance Manager Bangla Trac Miaki VAS
My daughter is thirteen years old. She has been using internet for one year. There is a fear factor among parents and teachers about internet. I have fear whether my child is accessing the right site. That's why I need to make myself aware first. If proper education and support can be provided, my kid will be able to choose the right sites.
We are also not giving our children access to right content. For example, my daughter wants to take some tuition on foreign language from a French site. It is a paid site. But we do not have the system of paying through credit system. So we have to create those facilities for them.
As a citizen of Bangladesh I have this very strong feeling that in what respect I am equal to citizens of other countries. In not a single way I can claim that I am equal to the best countries in the world except one aspect that is my mobile phone. In terms of usage and technological facilities, I get the standard facilities of my roaming mobile any where I land in the world. Truly I have been made to feel as a global citizen. Now, internet, particularly 3G, will add to my national pride which is very significant for our country. I am absolutely gone hope about internet for all. Whatever little The Daily Star can do we will whole heartedly do it for 'Internet for All'.
As a operator, I am very happy to see Grameenphone in the middle of most of our discussions like contacting the government, pricing, developing an apps and making it available for our customers, working with the device manufacturer to ensure those things made available and so on . So now we have to find the right solution to make all these entities work in a suitable ecosystem.
For us, the first thing is enablement of internet whether we talk about device, available technology, government support and platform where we can work together.
Second thing is to stimulate. How do we stimulate once you enable the internet? And the third issue is awareness. How do you make consumers aware about internet? They have to be also made aware about using internet for meeting their daily needs. How do we educate people and have them relevant apps. We have to also make it distributable that means how you make apps available for users. Next come price and speed. We have to work with the government to make internet affordable for all. To make it sustainable we have to monetize internet sector and attract people to invest more and more in this sector. One thing is very clear, we can only fasten it or slow it but can not stop it. It will happen in Bangladesh because there is a hunger to get into areas of exploration and to be connected. We have gone through those thinking. We have put our brains together. Now, we have to take it forward in terms of executing it. Grameenphone take this message back from this discussion.
Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed, Managing Editor, The Daily Star
To achieve the target of affordability, accessibility and awareness building we have to listen to the needs of the people at the bottom of society. When they will get benefit from internet only then we can claim ' internet for all'.