Vol. 5 Num 719 Tue. June 06, 2006  
Front Page

2nd submarine cable beckons Bangladesh
Govt needs to act fast on joining Asean-led information highway

A rare opportunity has emerged to connect Bangladesh with a much-needed second low-cost submarine cable as seven leading Asean telecoms operators officially joined hands to deploy a transpacific undersea link to connect with the United States of America.

Besides acquiring extra bandwidth and directly accessing the USA, sources said, joining this predominantly multi-government submarine cable consortium will become an invaluable backup to the country's newly commissioned only submarine cable link, SEA-ME-WE4.

If Bangladesh joins the newly formed consortium, the country's telecoms and ICT industries will enjoy seamless overseas connection even if one of the two cables gets accidentally snapped underneath the sea.

Although Bangladesh is not an initial party to the new Asean-led submarine cable venture, diplomatic moves coupled with a sound business plan will give the country a fair chance to be in the team.

The opportunity became visible on Friday when Telekom Malaysia (TM) led the official formation of an initial seven-country consortium to build the Asia-America Gateway (AAG), an international undersea cable system, linking Southeast Asia with the US.

Responding to TM's invitation, key officials of AiTi (Brunei), CAT Telekom (Thailand), PLDT (Philippines), REACH (Hong Kong), StarHub (Singapore) and VNPT (Vietnam) gathered in Hong Kong and signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to jointly develop a 20,000 kilometres long AAG submarine cable system. It will route between Malaysia and the US via Hong Kong, the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii with branches going to Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Vietnam.

"We see growth for broadband in these countries, there's a big potential," says Telekom Malaysia's wholesale division's Chief Operating Officer (COO) Baharum Salleh. "While the price of bandwidth will continue to go down for sure, the usage will go up with VOIP and other developments catching onů now even tier two carriers are requiring VOIP and data."

Baharum Salleh said the project will introduce the much-needed diversity to many of the traditional submarine cable routes while at the same time complement other existing infrastructures of high bandwidth cable systems currently in place.

"This cable system is specially designed to support the burgeoning demand for voice, internet protocol, data and video traffic between Southeast Asia and the US," he told Bernama, Malaysia's national news agency.

Baharum Salleh believes the project has prospects of becoming a gateway to other locations in Northeast and Southeast Asia, India, Australia, Africa and Europe as it is designed to provide a high degree of interconnectivity with existing and planned high bandwidth systems.

"We are still discussing with potential investors to join us to further develop this project. Maybe one or two more parties," TM's COO commented to Bernama. He said it is too early to announce how much the project will cost but the finance will come from the consortium.

The proposed AAG cable system will use the latest dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) technology with a minimum design capacity of 1.28 terabits per second. TM hopes to finalise the consortium agreement by this year's end and commence its deployment in the next year followed by commissioning of the cable in 2008.

"The Bangladesh government should move fast with bi-directional initiatives to utilise this rare opportunity," said a high official of Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB) who has been deeply involved with the negotiation and implementation of SEA-ME-WE4 project. He dubbed the emergence of another submarine cable consortium in this region right after the completion of SEA-ME-WE4 project, a miracle.

Apart from Myanmar, Bangladesh is the only sea-accessing country in this region having only one submarine cable. It is a huge drawback for Bangladesh in the trading of international bandwidth as well as connectivity. Since SEA-ME-WE4 is the country's only submarine cable, BTTB cannot guarantee any level of availability. It compels leading ISPs and multinationals to maintain satellite links for backup support. This is a huge drawback of the country's new submarine cable system.

"Persuading the AAG consortium for membership is one important issue while simultaneously negotiating with Islamic Development Bank (IDB) for financing this project is another equally significant task," said the BTTB official requesting anonymity.

Bangladesh has two possible ways to get linked with the AAG network. A Thailand to Chennai link may be deployed if the consortium decides to connect India. In that case, Bangladesh may be connected through a branching unit at the middle of that link. Otherwise, Bangladesh may have to lay its own cable all the way to Thailand.

The BTTB official said the existing Cox's Bazar landing station is good enough to connect the AAG cable. Therefore, Bangladesh will pay only for the 'wet segment' of the new cable system. "The new AAG and the existing SEA-ME-WE4 will carry each other's traffic when either of the cables faces disruption," he said.

The BTTB official said IDB should not have trouble with financing the AAG cable project, as it will eliminate the operational risks of SEA-ME-WE4 cable, for which the bank lent US$60 million to Bangladesh. This amount is repayable in nine years through 18 semi-annual instalments with a one-year grace period at the floating rate of six-month LIBOR (London Inter-bank Offered Rate) plus 2.5 percent annual mark-up.

The BTTB official said when Bangladesh initiated dialogue with the SEA-ME-WE4 consortium in May 2002, the country had less than one million mobile phones and half a million fixed telephones. Today the mobile market alone has more than 12 million subscribers. "It will at least triple when the AAG cable system is commissioned in 2008 and that alone justifies the merit for Bangladesh to join this new consortium," he said.

The BTTB official, however, underscored the political commitment necessary to make it happen. "I am not sure how far the government will understand the significance of this vital issue ahead of the election in early next year," he said. "If we fail to join the AAG cable consortium, the country will miss the opportunity exactly the way it did in the early 90s by ignoring the SEA-ME-WE3 consortium," the official warned.