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    Volume 6 Issue 5 | February 9, 2007 |

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Special Feature

Cut off

The government's short-sighted decision to demolish illegal VoIPs (Voice over Internet Protocol) without fulfilling its promise to award licenses for legitimate businesses has left hundreds of thousands of NRBs (Non-resident Bangladeshis) unable to get in touch with their loved ones and is also set to cost the business sector dear because of its cumbersome state-regulated communication technology.

Hana Shams Ahmed

Mahmudul Hassan, a Project Manager for Hewlett Packard has been living in the USA for more than seven years. He's the eldest of three siblings and all the rest of his family members live in Mirpur. In the last two weeks none of his calls have been getting through even when he tried to call direct. He was very surprised by the government's decision to stop VoIP services in the country without giving licenses so that they could be provided legally. “My sister just had a baby,” says Hassan, “I did not get to congratulate her or hear my nephew's voice. I have not been able to get hold of my parents at all and I'm really upset that I missed talking to my dad on his birthday.” In the last few years as technology has become cheaper he has been calling his family in Dhaka regularly. Now after a long time Hassan feels homesick again.

Lonely parents of NRBs live on phone calls from their children and grandchildren.

And that is the case for the more than five million Bangladeshis living in different parts of the world. VoIP or Internet telephony uses a combination of hardware and software to transmit telephone calls through the Internet. The signal travels from a person's phone to the Internet where it crosses borders and is eventually transmitted back to a phone in another country. The signal that travels through the Internet is free which makes the phone call so cheap. Closing down the VoIP centres in Bangladesh means that they disconnected these computers in Dhaka and so the calls cannot "terminate" here anymore. While the process of terminating has deprived BTTB of a large amount of revenue and allowed many unscrupulous individuals to carry on illegal monopolies in the business for years, the ultimate sufferers are the Bangladeshi expatriates for whom a phone call to a loved one back home is the only way to make their homesickness bearable.

Thirty-four-year-old Rubel Ahsan has been working in the IT industry in Silicon Valley, California for the last 10 years. He recently went back from Bangladesh and was really surprised when he could not call back home to let anyone know of their safe arrival. “After having left our family back home, you can imagine how much we wanted to talk to them,” he says, “On top of that we had mistakenly left an important medication in Bangladesh and needed to ask them to send it with someone right away who was coming the next day. In the end, we had to call someone in another country and had them SMS the message to Dhaka. However, it was too late and the medication had to be sent by FedEx.”

Ahsan is very frustrated with the government's decision. “In the progressive world, that (VoIP) is completely in the private sector,” he says, “The U.S Government does not own any phone companies like Bangladesh government owns the BTTB. It's completely deregulated. They pay their taxes to the government like any other business. In Bangladesh, that is how it was meant to be as well. However, powerful people did not want regular joes like us to get into the act so they kept it illegal.”

The commercial use of VoIP was approved by the then Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia at the end of 2003, after two years of lobbying and severe criticism from information technology and telecom experts. The chairman of BTRC (Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission), Syed Marghub Morshed, was quoted by the BBC then that licences would be awarded as early as possible as 'technological advancement should no longer be held back'.

But the government move to grant licenses to these companies never came. In December 2005 the government declared that licence for VoIP would be given after setting up a common platform in four areas of the country bye June of the following year under BTTB in Dhaka, Chittagong, Sylhet and Bogra. That deadline too passed by. In the meantime the number of illegal VoIPs grew but the government didn't seem to take much heed. ISPAB (Internet Service Providers Association of Bangladesh) President Akhtaruzzaman Manju's recommendation that legalising the system would allow the country to earn Tk 1,000 crore as foreign exchange fell on deaf ears. There are allegations that the BNP government's procrastination in legalising the business by giving licenses allowed many influential quarters within the government and outside it, to make huge amounts of money through a business that was completely illegal.

The caretaker government's decision to stop VoIP services without thinking of the consequences and without any backup plan has left hundreds of thousands of NRBs in a quandary. 38-year-old Rumi Ahmed Khan, a physician and an assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin points out that as more and more people travel to the Middle East and other countries from rural areas with no BTTB connection the absence of VoIP calls will create a huge communication gap between families from these middle and lower-income group. “Since VoIP started to be used in Bangladesh, calling has become dramatically easier and cheaper,” he says, “As more and more parents, wives and children are left behind in Bangladesh, overseas calls from children or head of family has become more crucial in the daily lives of millions of Bangladeshis. With nearly everybody in middle class having a cell phone, there is a trend towards communicating overseas via phones rather using old hand-written mails. As most NRBs are from poor rural societies, they even don't have a landline in a ten-mile radius. And among the few landline owners, fewer have ISD established in the phone. So an extremely small portion of people is under the coverage of non-VoIP telecommunication. Without VoIP these people will be totally disconnected.”

According to GSMA (Global System for Mobile communication Association), a grouping of more than 700 GSM mobile phone operators from 217 countries, telecommunications investment as a percentage of GDP is 70% lower in Bangladesh and call prices are two to three times higher than the average for developing countries, which puts Bangladesh-based businesses, competing in the global market, at a competitive disadvantage because the cost of communicating is substantially higher.

Tanoy Kanti Dutta, the Chief Operating officer of Techno Dimension Pte Ltd., a registered SBO (Service Based Operator) is very critical of the past government's inaction to set up an organised VoIP system. He is shocked that VoIPs were closed in Bangladesh because BTTB was losing revenue. “It seems from the very next day Rab is going to start arresting everyone for sending Emails because the post office is losing revenue,” says Dutta, “When I was in Bangladesh even for one residential line you had to pay a bribe to the half-educated lineman after paying for the demand note. Has the caretaker government taken any steps to clean up the BTTB system?”

Dutta, who has three years experience in the telecom sector, believes that Bangladesh has huge possibilities in the telecom sector. “Every day companies like Sing Tel, MCI, Sprint, Vsnl have billions of voice minutes for Bangladesh. Our NRBs send lots of remittance to the country. They have the right to communicate with their relatives at a reasonable rate,” he says, “This is the right time to liberalise the VOIP. The people who have been arrested should be utilised for the development of this sector. VOIP is a technology. It is a golden mine for Bangladesh.”

So, where does all this leave Bangladesh? Apart from lost business opportunities and foreign investment, it leaves a lot of NRBs, who send an enormous amount of remittance every year, with a huge communication gap with their families. While the whole world moves ahead in leaps and bounds in the technological sector because of the past government's vested interest to help its cronies make a fortune on illegal businesses, VoIP license applications from authorised ISPs have been kept on hold indefinitely. Meanwhile we wait anxiously for the caretaker government's steps to bridge the gap between the country and the rest of the world.



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