Providing DSL broadband internet to Upazilas
A vibrant mobile telephone market has shot up in Bangladesh within a short period of time. The market had only 10.80 million subscribers in December 2005, but by the end of April 2015, the number rose to 124.70 million, covering 80 percent of the country's population .This growth in the mobile telephone sector, however, could not make any impact on its fixed phone lines (PSTN) counterpart, which covered only 0.7 percent of the population with 1.07 million subscribers by the end of April 2015. Ours is the lowest rate in fixed phone line use in South Asia. It is, therefore, necessary to boost up the fixed-phone (PSTN) market. This can be done by providing broadband internet services over PSTN phone lines, along with voice and fax services. Providing broadband internet over PSTN lines is known as Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), which is popular all over the world.
Bangladesh got submarine cable connection in 2005 which eased the availability of internet bandwidth. There were only 500,000 internet users in 2007. Now we have an internet market of 45 million users that covers 29 percent of the population. But unfortunately, most internet users are using low speed 2-G non-broadband mobile internet, which cannot keep pace with the fast growing digital world. Since 4-G and 3-G mobile broadband services are not available in the Upazilas, people living there have no alternative but to use low speed 2-G mobile internet. Thus, there is a vacuum for blue-chip investments for DSL by the BTCL.
DSL technology uses traditional phone lines, which requires a modem to be fixed at the user's telephone set and a Digital Subscribers Line Access Multiplexer (DSLM) to be fixed at the telephone exchange. The phone lines can then provide high-speed internet without intervening the voice telephony. The global telecom market proves that DSL is still a major competitor in broadband internet market. Most of the developed countries in the world have been using this technology for quite a long time. Compared to other two fixed line internet services, i.e. cable Internet (internet over coaxial satellite TV cables) and FTTH (internet over optical fibre lines), DSL is the most affordable and thus is best suited for lower and mid-income groups.
Currently, the BTCL is able to provide DSL internet services from 55 district exchanges and 32 non-district exchanges. Many Upazila exchanges are not yet capable of providing this service, because they are either not connected with an internet backbone or are not yet upgraded with DSLAM or are equipped with in-built DSLM system. As soon as an Upazila exchange is connected with fibre optic internet backbone, the BTCL will be able to introduce DSL broadband internet services to land phone users within the command area of an exchange. An upazila exchange consisting of 500-1000 telephone lines will be able to provide up to 1-2 Mbps-speed internet connection to an equal number of households within 4-5 kilometres of the telephone exchange. The present economic condition of rural Bangladesh suggests that a good number of household owners living in upazila headquarters are capable of subscribing DSL internet services.
Fibre optic backbone connection up to upazila headquarters is being conducted under certain projects. When that is done, the BTCL will have to provide the cost of upgrading the exchanges with DSLAM along with the cost of providing the end users' copper cable line with a modem. The rest is maintenance and marketing service costs . The BTCL can invest its own resources or can start the business by adopting the model of partnership with other private sector telecom companies or ISPs. The UK, for example, has opened government-owned telephone exchanges to private companies on revenue sharing basis. We should remember that government owned companies have no valid reasons for keeping national properties unutilised, where there is ample scope to use it for public good. We should also remember that giving fibre optic lines to some publicly used community centres or offices is not sufficient for the growth of the ICT industry in rural areas.
An Industry-friendly atmosphere requires sufficient number of household connections which can ensure round-the-clock use of internet by the inhabitants, relatives and friends of a household. When households are connected with the internet, family members can socialise over the net, can earn money by doing out-sourced jobs and can even be self-employed by staying at home. Moreover, commercial connections can create job opportunities for young people.
When developed countries, particularly European countries, are still using DSL despite the presence of fibre optic and cable technology, there is no reason why the BTCL should not capture the market first with its currently available infrastructure with only some up-gradation work. The question of existence for publicly owned land line telephones should also be taken into consideration. When the public views firsthand the prospect of getting internet connection through PSTN phones, they will definitely apply for new connections. This may give a new life to the fixed phone lines.
The writer is a former Joint Secretary to the government.