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Cover Story

The 3G Promises

Zahir Hassan Nabil

In mid-October last year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated Bangladesh's first-ever 3G-service that marks high speed data services, allowing constant connectivity to the internet via mobile phones. Provided at present only by state-run Teletalk and available only in the capital, the speed enables high volume of data, for example, video streaming on 3G-enabled mobile phone sets.

Now the private telecom operators await the auction for 3G licenses, which is going to take place in February. Once 3G spreads its wings, its use will not be limited to the joy of having HD videos and television playing on one's palm, which the state-owned Teletalk seems to have suggested through its advertisements.

Smartphones and tablets may garner increased sales countrywide; affordability and usage remain concerns. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

The potential application of this light speed network can extend to diverse Value Added Services (VAS) ranging from downloading multimedia contents (ringtone, wallpapers, songs etc) to financial, education and health services and governance through mobile technology – to name a few possibilities. Speed gives an added benefit to diversify and improve the quality of VAS contents developed by various local independent third parties for the telecom operators, which are now provided through text, MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) and voice services.

The VAS process happens to have stumbling blocks among the telecom carriers, the VAS providers and the government. “There is this prolonged debate over who will provide the VAS,” says Sumon Ahmed Sabir, senior vice president of Internet Service Providers Association of Bangladesh (ISPAB). The VAS providers in unison coerced the government in formulating a VAS policy with Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), which was placed at the ministry for approval but the matter still remains unresolved. He says, “If the mobile operators solely direct the third party, contents will not develop and if the third-party wants to take the whole share, the mobile operators will not encourage the growth,” he explains.

Abu Saeed Khan, senior policy fellow of the Colombo-based ICT think-tank LIRNEasia, thinks the Gs are commercial gimmicks. He says, "It is grossly misleading to assume that 3G translates into watching videos for free. 3G ensures high speed access to the internet round the clock through 3G-enabled mobile phones. WiMax doesn't give you that, the moment you are out of the Wifi zone, you're disconnected. That is the fundamental difference.”

The government can provide interactive services to vital sectors like agriculture, as it has pledged.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Khan, however, hastens to add that 3G is a business process, through which one is constantly connected to high speed internet, which itself is a product. “But the question is how many people of this country need to be always connected through a very high speed bandwidth? No one assessed this demand so far,” he says.

“For the government, it is still a tool for governance that can be incorporated with public administrative processes and e-governance,” he says. The term e-governance stands for electronic governance refers to using various modern technologies in the governing and administrative processes to speedily deliver services to business and citizens and make administrative processes within the government easier and faster. Various models of e-governance have already been adopted in public services as a part of digital Bangladesh.


“As an example, it is necessary that the primary teachers across the country receive their salaries in due time and it could be successfully done using financial services through mobile technology, and this move should be prioritised over creating multimedia classrooms,” Khan exemplifies.

AKM Fahim Mashroor, president of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) believes the benefits of 3G can only be reaped when it will be available countrywide instead of the metropolitan cities only. According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) some 3.8 percent of the country's urban population has used the internet in 2012, which is just over one percent. One of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) aspires for 15 percent internet penetration by 2015 in the country. In September last year, the Web Index by the world-wide-web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself ranked Bangladesh in the bottom-ten among 61 countries, in terms of how the internet made political, social and economic impacts over people's lives, with particularly indicating very poor utilisation of the internet and its content.

Mashroor says, “The government must sketch out how to develop beneficial contents for people and help develop the VAS industry so that the high-speed communication infrastructure can be put to use. Personally I think the main priority area for the contents is education because our schools are devoid of quality teachers. If such models are prepared through which educational contents can be streamed to school children in the fringes, it will be beneficiary to them.”

The government can revolutionise and rejuvenate its services by incorporating mobile technology when automations like e-commerce and e-governance have just begun to develop in our country. In a layman's answer to the enquiries of the possibilities of 3G, it seems that if the government, the telecom providers and the content providers all come to a middle ground, the users will be benefited provided that the VAS providers are providing quality content and the operators will have a market for business.

The advent of 3G mobile technologies in Bangladesh comes at a time when the hype of android phones (smartphones) and tablets (tabs) is at its peak worldwide. Over 17 million new android devices and the likes were reportedly activated on the 2012 Christmas worldwide, according to mobile analytics firm Flurry. Earlier in mid-2012, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimated mobile web users across the world grew by 1.1 billion by 2011.

Post-Auction Issues

The Prime Minister said ICT can be employed to take development to the grassroots level speedily and at low costs, while inaugurating Teletalk's 3G service in October 2012. Photo: PID

Finance Minister AMA Muhith has said that the auction to give out 3G licenses to private telecom operators is slated for February, which means the operators might launch 3G by the middle of this year. As on January 1, the BTRC has set the base price for auction at $20 million for per megahertz spectrum of the 3G network, which has been greeted with concern by the private telecom operators.

Zakiul Islam, senior director (regulatory and legal affairs) of Banglalink, says, “There is a huge investment into developing the 3G network, it is not just providing video and having all the investment returned. There are many pertinent issues that the government should keep in mind, such as readiness of the market and business platform, plus the content for this network, literacy of the people who will utilise the services.” He says that without utilising the network for providing a range of services, it would be difficult to match people's expectations and provide quality services at the same time.

Michael Kuehner, chief executive officer of Robi cannot but agree. He says, “While the BTRC can be commended for fast tracking the 3G guidelines, the base price is not based on the economic indicators of Bangladesh and does not reflect potential 3G uptake and revenue. Moreover, 3G revenue is fully dependent on data driven VAS and without the guaranteed commercial freedom, operators may find themselves on the back foot all too quickly.”

Kuehner suggests that the government should focus on end user benefit and affordability, “There definitely may be a market for 3G services in the country and our network has been prepped to roll out services, but the question still remains about the market size,” he says.

Syed Tahmeed Azizul Huq, acting chief communications officer of GrameenPhone says, “Recently we have seen some positive moves by the government and regulator and we have shared our views with the regulator and the ministry, hoping the government will sincerely address the concerns raised.”

Though repeatedly contacted, Sunil Kanti Bose, secretary of the ministry of post and telecommunications, was not available for comment.

A glimpse into 3G usage and penetration worldwide.
Source: Informa World Cellular Information Service (WCIS)

A World of Possibilities
Beyond the VAS and other e-services, 3G technology has been put to use innovatively in various countries to give people easy access to information regarding vital areas like healthcare, education and agriculture. While unveiling 3G last October, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also emphasised speedy data access while President Zillur Rahman noted its possibility in developing education, health and economic sectors. While declaring the auction schedule in December the Finance Minister referred to 3G's potential use in the areas of land digitisation, administration and in the police department.

But now that the 3G is knocking at the door, questions have also emerged whether the implications would be limited to the metropolitan cities only; 3G handsets are costly and require its users to be proficient in certain languages. Then again, if the service extends to the grassroots, how prepared are the people to incorporate, absorb and cope with the contents provided by this technology, considering both the positives and the negatives?

Information Commissioner Professor Sadeka Halim, says, “Lives are more hectic now, we are spending less time with families, more at work, mobile has become an inseparable vehicle of communication, which has both positive and negative implications. People will be empowered by this technology, and if the service is extended to the ones living in the fringes, they will be able to connect to the ones living in the cities, and even to migrant relatives working abroad,” she says.

“Yet it may be abused just like any other technology,” Halim says, highlighting the abuse of technology that may lead to the loss of our social and cultural values. “We must proceed comprehensively with technologies; we must make sure how trained and prepared people are to use a technology as such,” she adds.

Streaming videos on a handset is merely a recreational benefit of 3G. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Agriculture activist Shykh Seraj considers television as a proven revolutionary communication tool towards developing agriculture. A fast internet connection with video telephony may certainly become useful for providing beneficial information for to farmers, he says. “But the government must introduce this and should further monitor the process,” Seraj says, “We only consider it important to facilitate and modernise our urban privileges whereas the urban population covers only one fifth of the country. The existing value added services provided by private operators is a lengthy process for the farmers as they have to keep tapping buttons to get simple information while they are being charged for every minute's call. I would suggest the government take up initiatives to ensure whether the farmers are getting enough information in exchange for the money they are spending and also develop useful content and/or encourage incentives for it.”

Agriculture Secretary Monzur Hossain says that his ministry is yet to do something so that 3G can be used to benefit the farmers. He, however, says, "If we are informed of the advantages of this technology and how that can be customised for this sector, we will surely implement it.” He refers to the Agriculture Information Services (AIS), an initiative of Digital Bangladesh, which is already giving out necessary information through the internet for farmers across the country. AIS Director Rezwanul Islam Mukul says, “We do want to avail new technologies. We are very interested in 3G so that we can provide voice call services with video to the farming sector through AIS. But we need to assure the means of cooperation and assess the source of financing to do this.”

On a similar query regarding embedding technology in education sector, Education Secretary Kamal Abdul Naser Chowdhury says, “As we are trying to employ every opportunity to use ICT in education, even in administrative processes through developing an information management system, we do want to use new technologies like 3G but the planning is yet to be done.”

It is indeed true that the government's visionary concept like digital Bangladesh will be successful when the people from all across the country, are not just provided with the network, but can reap the benefit of 3G network for which the government has an obligation for an appropriate implementation. Advanced technologies may not just radically change lives. Anis Pervez, a sociologist specialising in information science, says, “The way people use technology in a society changes over time to maximise the benefits. But its effects, positive or negative, largely depend on how this technology is put to use.” Systems like e-governance may not just be an answer to the prevailing alleged anomalies in the administrative and bureaucratic processes. The government remains obligated to put it to right use because the man behind the machine is in charge of how technologies operate.

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