THE magnitude of unmet demand for land phones in Bangladesh has been very significant. Studies have suggested that access to land phones in the country could be as low as 12 to 15 per cent of the potential demand. Such poor coverage, no doubt, has been responsible for Bangladesh having one of the lowest tele-density in the world. Access to telephones has been much more limited in this country compared to the situation in other low-income economies of the region and also in other parts of the world.
There has been some improvement in the tele-density situation in recent years because of the phenomenal growth of the mobile phones. Yet there still exists a huge potential for further expansion of the number of cell phones in the country and the operators in the sector are now engaged in a price war to woo more and more cell phone users. The limited interconnection capacity of the state-owned Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB) remains a major problem for using the cell phone market potentials to the full. However, the growth of mobile phones is no way a substitute for the land phones. Most people do desire to have land phone connections at their homes for the sake of necessity as well as convenience. According to studies conducted by a leading multilateral donor agency, Bangladesh's tele-density of fixed lines increased by only 0.1 per cent during the '90s. The access to land phones has been severely constrained because of the public monopoly and the BTTB's lack of capacity to mobilise the capital and technology required for modernising and expanding its network.
The harassment and sufferings of the people seeking to have new BTTB land phone connections are well-known. Thousands of applications for new connections are still gathering dusts at different BTTB offices across the country. Potential subscribers of land phones were delighted when the government allowed private operators to be in land phone business. They thought that their days of long wait for land phones would be over since the private operators were supposed to be efficient and subscriber-friendly. But the developments centring the private companies which are already in operation are not encouraging. According to a report published in this daily Saturday, the potential subscribers are finding the private land phones unattractive mainly due to higher charges and other technical problems. The companies have also been experiencing a slow growth of their business. The situation could be understood well from the fact that the BTTB offices in Chittagong and its adjoining areas received more than 100,000 applications for new land phone connections in recent months when a couple of private land phone operators could attract a very insignificant number of subscribers.
The situation calls for immediate review by the relevant authorities, including the regulatory agency -- the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC). If the situation continues to be what it is now, then the very purpose of liberalising the telecom sector would be defeated. The liberalisation is purported to ensuring a competitive environment where the subscribers would get hassle-free access to telecommunication facility at the least possible cost. The BTRC has given licences to 23 private land phone companies across the country and only four of them are now in operation. The authorities with a view to making a win-win situation for both the subscribers and the operators should devise an appropriate strategy so far as the expansion of the land phone network is concerned.