Bangladesh simultaneously exports and imports internet bandwidth to and from India. Its geographic location and state of international connectivity have contributed to this interesting scenario.
The first submarine cable named SEA-ME-WE4 landed at Cox’s Bazar in 2005, and dramatically improved the country’s overall international connectivity through the Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company (BSCCL).
However, the industry still remains nervous about outages due to maintenance or accidental snapping of the cable.
Diversifying international connectivity through cross-border links with India has become imperative. Accordingly, six private outfits rerouted Bangladesh via Kolkata across the western border in 2012, which keeps Bangladesh online during the outages of SEA-ME-WE4.
Yet, the internet service providers (ISPs) of Bangladesh struggle with slower Indian bandwidth. The neighbour’s undersea cables land mostly at Chennai and Mumbai. The bandwidth is then transmitted to Kolkata through underground optical fibre transmission systems before being exported to Bangladesh through terrestrial cross-border links.
But this process has various impediments, like the highly protected Indian domestic long distance segment’s investment deficiency and draconian regulations regarding right-of-way, which have further aggravated India’s digital backwardness. This ends into Bangladesh receiving degraded quality of international bandwidth from India.
Bangladeshi ISPs are eagerly waiting for the connection to SEA-ME-WE5, the second submarine cable, which lands at Kuakata, the southwestern coastal spot in the country, this year.
Kuakata is 300 nautical miles away from Cox’s Bazar. The two undersea cable landings will significantly boost Bangladesh’s international connectivity, as well as rescue Bangladeshi ISPs from the Indian carriers’ oligopoly.
These issues have prompted Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), India’s state-owned carrier, to import international bandwidth from Bangladesh to digitise Tripura and other northeastern states.
Under a deal signed in June 2015, BSNL annually pays BSCCL about Tk 96 million (or $1.2 million) for 10 Gbps of international bandwidth.
India will quadruple its bandwidth intake from Bangladesh in the near future.
Underground optical fibre link from Cox’s Bazar to BSNL’s Agartala node via Akhaura was commissioned in November 2015. BSCCL began exporting bandwidth on a trial basis from early February of 2016.
BSNL could, however, consume only 30 percent of imported bandwidth due to lack of readiness in its northeast Indian networks. As a result, the Indian operator has decided to divert the bandwidth from Bangladesh where its network is ready.
Since April 11, 2016 BSNL has imported bandwidth from Agartala to Kolkata via Shillong and Siliguri. Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Dyn, has found that about 50 routes from BSNL in Kolkata go through Cox’s Bazar to reach the global internet.
Also, BSCCL has replaced Telia, Tata, Bharti and Vodafone to become the only international bandwidth supplier of BSNL in West Bengal, he added.
This is how Cox’s Bazar became the de facto third telecom gateway of India.
BSNL, like the Bangladeshi ISPs, remains vulnerable to the exclusive dependency on SEA-ME-WE4 submarine cable until the SEA-ME-WE5 comes into operation this year. The Cox’s Bazar to Agartala via Akhaura terrestrial link also keeps BSNL’s broadband supply chain fragile.
Therefore, the Indian state-owned ISP should connect more nodes with Bangladesh across the West Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya borders.
These facilities will bolster BSNL’s international connectivity with unprecedented quality and speed once SEA-ME-WE5 lands at Kuakata. That will make this southwestern tourist destination of Bangladesh the fourth international telecom gateway of India.
The writer is a senior policy fellow at LIRNEasia. He can be reached at email@example.com.