Sylhet city was highly praised recently for ridding one of its roads from cobwebs of overhead cables, but expanding the project to other areas of the city is like traversing a room full of wire-traps.
Sylhet City Corporation (SCC), internet service providers (ISP) and Nationwide Telecommunication Transmission Network (NTTN) providers have been going back and forth for months over implementing the plan. On one hand, the project will be a boon for the city's beautification, but on the other, it will be too expensive for ISPs to carry out, and the city might be devoid of internet connection for an indefinite period.
First phase of the underground power line project of Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) is about to end, and a seven-kilometre road, stretching from Amberkhana to Circuit House, is about to be detangled of cables.
"We are almost ready to go cable free in these areas [adjacent to the road] and tested our new system successfully. We will soon start to remove all electric poles gradually," said Ziaul Haque, executive engineer of Power Distribution System Development Project of BPDB.
Mentioning these facts, SCC issued a circular on Sunday, urging all ISPs to take proper initiatives and discuss with NTTN providers by March 8, saying that the corporation is not liable if the city suffers broadband disconnection.
NTTN is the regulatory body of Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC). According to NTTN guidelines, only licensed NTTN providers are authorised to build distribution networks within the country and all network providers avail the service from them.
Summit Communications Ltd and Fiber@Home Ltd are the only licenced NTTN providers in the country.
According to Sylhet ISP Association, around 43 licensed ISPs in Sylhet are providing broadband internet services to approximately 50,000 city residents.
Nayeemuzzaman Nayeem, general secretary of the association, said, "Almost all ISPs' uplink [central hub for connections] is located at Zindabazar, which is included in the underground project. Moreover, the roads included are prime locations, where all ISPs have coverage. If the lines are cut, the whole city will be affected."
SCC, Sylhet ISP Association, NTTN providers and BTRC have been meeting repeatedly to solve the problem.
In a press conference arranged by the association on February 25-26, the association claimed that SCC Mayor Ariful Haque Chowdhury assured ISPs that alternatives will be offered, but finally on February 18, he gave up on those ideas.
"The mayor in previous meetings said they would attach all internet cables to streetlamp poles and formed a committee on November 24 last year to assess possibilities," said Nayeem. "But the committee estimated a cost of Tk 4.3 crore for implementation, which is impossible for us to spend."
He further said, "During a meeting, Summit Communications provided a tariff to avail their service. If we avail, the cost of providing broadband service will significantly rise. Furthermore, they want us to lock an end user's connection agreement for at least four years, which is unrealistic."
"For these reasons we're incapable of availing NTTN services," he added.
In reply, KM Tariquzzaman, chief technology officer of Summit Communications, said, "We are the only legal way for ISPs to reach end users, and providing our services to ISPs is time consuming and costly."
"Considering all factors, we offered a rate and some conditions to ISPs. We don't want customers to bear the brunt of an excessive price hike either," he said. "Moreover, to bar illegal use of the service, we want lock client connection agreements for the time being."
Meanwhile, ISP owners claimed that SCC has double standards, as Sylhet Cable Systems (SCS), an organisation that provides satellite cable connections, has built its own underground cable network without going through NTTN.
In reply, Md Juned Alam, managing director of SCS, said, "We built our own network after getting approval from SCC. The corporation also needs our network to get benefits through our cable channels."
Mayor Ariful echoed Juned's comment, saying, "Permitting SCS to go underground will eventually help the city corporation, as we'll be using their underground channels to connect the city's CCTVs."
Regarding the whole situation, he said, "As some local youths are involved in the ISP business, I thought about supporting them. Although they are bound to avail services from NTTN companies, which they found costly, I asked them to run their cables through drains the corporation is constructing beside the road, but they refused due to excessive cost."
"Finding no other way, I published the circular so that people are prepared to avail alternative internet services if broadband is cut off," the Mayor said.
"All large institutions like banks and offices in the project areas have already found alternative ways to connect to the internet. As far as I know, ISPs are now trying to reroute their cables behind buildings near the road, and that would keep the main road cable free," he added.
ISP owners, however, have not yet decided on their next course of action, and putting cables behind buildings is only a temporary solution, as the authorities are planning on making the entire Sylhet city cable free.