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Maximising benefits from submarine cable
Shahiduzzaman Khan

          Bangladesh has, of late, joined the information superhighway after being connected with the Middle-East through submarine cable line. It was a long sought-after dream that has come true after a long but arduous journey.
According to a report published in the FE this week, the country got connected at a cost of US$35 million with the Middle East initially by 120 out of 220 channels. The rest of the channels will be activated by December 13. Installation of optic fibre line, construction of landing station at Cox's Bazar, domestic underground line in the Bangladesh territory and other technical preparations like on-trial tests and cross examination have already been completed.
The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) financed the $41.42 million-project for Bangladesh segment. A total of 16 organisations of 14 countries across Asia, Africa and Europe earlier formed a consortium to install the 22 thousand-kilometre long submarine cable line titled "SEAMEWE4" (South East Asia Middle East and West Europe-4).
The work of the landing station of the information superhighway in Bangladesh began on April 21 last year and had been completed on October 2 last. Except the construction work of landing station in Annaba in Algeria, all works including wet part have been completed.
The country is also going to be connected with Etislaat (UAE) through 220 channels information superhighway on December 13 next. Besides the existing ones, the country would have the capacity to use more 7.0 million cell phones after it connects itself with global information superhighway formally.
Until now, the Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB) maintained its international tele-communication link through satellites. In most littoral states, tele-communication through submarine fibre optical cables alongside satellite system has been put in place. Submarine cable system has the advantage of being less expensive per channel, dependable and technically superior. Many countries of the world including the neighbouring countries have been linked with more than one submarine cable networks.

The optic fibre technology brought revolutionary changes in the information and communications system worldwide, yet many counties did not adopt it at the initial stage. The policymakers in Bangladesh were also reluctant to take up this technology due to fear of 'state secret leak-out' at the first instance. Many opportunities knocked at the door for getting a place in a consortium-funded project for connectivity with fibre optic line at a much cheaper rate. But indecision on the part of the government prevented the country from joining the consortium.
Back in 2000, the then government prepared a draft submarine cable project the cost of which was estimated at Tk. 9.21 billion with a foreign exchange component of Tk. 8.12 billion. The government also set up a taskforce for addressing the problems of implementation, creation of a joint venture and for negotiating with interested foreign financing institutions. The project was scheduled to be completed by March 2002. The taskforce raised two important issues. One was the mode of financing and the other was related to the terms of the draft construction and maintenance contract with SingTel of Singapore.
According to company's financial proposals, TYCO or Alcatel were project suppliers not financers. The loan was scheduled to be offered by financing institutions like Citibank and HSBC. The taskforce, therefore, wanted a directive from the government as to whether the financing would be made under a supplier's credit or buyer's guarantee. If a loan is obtained from a particular supplier, there is hardly any scope for international tendering. In a buyer's guarantee there is no such difficulty.
Certain gross lapses were also detected in the draft construction and maintenance agreement with SingTel. Even with a negligible share in the project SingTel would administer the project and exercise effective control over it. However, the project could not be implemented due to lack of concrete decisions on the part of the then government.
A few days before the terms of the previous government were to expire, a seven-member team was sent to Singapore to finalise the deal with SingTel. The negotiation was not productive. Two days after the caretaker government was installed into office, it decided that there was no need to proceed with the matter further and the project should be considered on the basis of an open international tender. This is how the submarine cable line project got off to a sober start in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, country's mobile phone providers are now awaiting formulation of government policies on how to ensure the maximum use of the submarine cable connections through an open and fair market competition.
Questions are now being asked whether the BTTB would monopolise the technology or not. All private phone operators should get easy access to the submarine cable for optimising its use and helping boost trade and commerce of the country.
Sources close to the BTTB said a number of committees have been set up and they are working day and night to determine the users' criteria and tariff rate for use of the optical fibre facilities. However, most of mobile phone operators are in the dark about the BTTB actions on this issue. They were not even consulted about the submarine matters.
At present, the mobile phone operators are paying high tariff to the telecom service providers. Such tariff must be streamlined in line with the international rates. In advanced countries in Europe and America, such telephony facilities cost a consumer 20 to 30 dollar a month. They can talk through their own country and get broadband and cable TV connections. The speed is generally two megabyte per second.
However, in Bangladesh, a dedicated broadband connection costs a consumer Tk 20,000 for only 128-megabyte/second speed a month. Experts say this is most expensive in the world. If the private telephone companies here are allowed to use the submarine cable, the consumers need not pay more than the international rate. The companies should charge far less here considering speed, single-purpose use, and other facilities after they get submarine connections.
Many of the mobile phone and fixed line telephone providers have already started introducing the latest technology to get connect their customers with the submarine cable.
Bangladesh's linking with global information superhighway would create opportunities for setting up software development industries, attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) in ICT sectors and promoting radical advancement in the overall economy.


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