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Much needs to be done to tap potentials of submarine cable
Shahiduzzaman Khan

          Bangladesh is yet to be ready for full implementation of the submarine cable, according to a report published in a national daily this week. Flawed attitude and perception towards the submarine cable persist at every point. The most important part of the optic fibre cable operation is its pricing policy, management and developing infrastructure to get the benefit. But all these are painfully missing in policy matters of the government. These should have been done soon after Bangladesh had decided to join the SEA-ME-WE4 consortium.
Did the country really miss the bus? Not really. Experts say there is still some time left to go for swift implementation of the submarine cable project. As the cable launching has been completed and the circuits are working on a test basis, the question of connectivity does arise. Who will give connection has not been decided yet. A regulation to this effect is absent. Due to this delay, internet service providers (ISP) are doing illegal voice over internet telephony (VoIP) business. This business has flourished during the last five years due to lack of will on the part of the government. However, the question now arises: Who will build capacity for major commercial and public centres and offer connectivity at a 'non-discriminatory' price to other operators and subscribers?
Obviously, the name of the country's largest telecommunications agency -- Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB) -- comes first. So far land telephone is concerned, the BTTB dominated the local market with absolute monopoly until the other day. The organisation is plagued by widespread corruption, non-transparent deals and mismanagement. Yet the Board has been running at a profit. Such profit could have been four or five times higher if there was no corruption inside. It has huge surplus money at its disposal, but it cannot spend it as it needs due to its status as a pure government organisation. There was a move for making it a holding company, but the union and a vested coterie in the BTTB are opposing the move vehemently. Yet there is no such broad entity like the BTTB that can be given responsibility of capacity building. By all means, the BTTB remains the only organisation to handle this business. But there should be a provision that if any organisation wants to go for capacity building at its own, approval should be given to it on a level-playing field. Mobile phone companies, for example, can be allowed to build their own capacity. Such arrangement can ensure better utilisation of Bangladesh's fibre optic line to the service sector of its economy.
After capacity building, the question of implementing the system comes. The BTTB does not seem to do well as the organisation is itself beset with enormous problems. There is a need for a competent and committed regulator with modern, competition-centred regulatory regime. Country's telecom regulatory system is yet be reformed. In order to address the issue, the cable segment (the share of the SEA-ME-WE4 cable, the cable station, the fibre connecting the landing station to major commercial centres) should be separated from the BTTB and vested to a new fully government-owned company.
In order to ensure that the new company is separated effectively from the BTTB and is efficiently managed, it is necessary to contract out its management to a competent international operator through a transparent bidding process. The management contract must include provisions for avoiding conflict of interest, incentivising optimum use of capacity, and ensuring non-discriminatory pricing to the operators.
There is no denying that the implementation of such institutional arrangement needs some time. But the country has not much time left to waste and must learn from others' mistakes. Nigeria was dependent on expensive satellite connectivity until it was linked to SAT-3 cable in 2002. There was high expectation from the newly launched submarine cable. But the cable did not deliver the desired result. Unfortunately neither the Nigerian government nor the industry there responded positively to the cable operation. As such, it did not improve internet connectivity and fulfil its people's aspirations for a reliable and cost-effective connectivity. Repeated delay in building infrastructure was a main cause. Another reason was that a most 'inefficient and incompetent' company was given the responsibility of the cable management. However, Nigeria is now coming out of its age-old inertia. It is reviewing various options to move ahead.
Bangladesh must learn from the Nigerian mistakes and create a policy and regulatory environment that will allow participation of multiple players in the task of cost-effective way of connecting the people and its companies to the burgeoning service markets of the world.
Despite all praise for the impressive local information technology (IT) talents and young successful software companies, the country's software outsourcing market is very small. At present, the country has only a stake of $12 million in offshore development. The total global market size of outsourcing for 2005 was estimated at $40 billion and was expected to triple by 2009. The arrival of much-awaited submarine cable should expand the country's present market size of outsourcing. Cell phone market also awaits a big boost.
As put up by Danish IT experts who visited Softexpo 2005 held in Dhaka last year: 'Bangladesh is a sleeping giant as far as the software outsourcing is concerned.' The sleeping giant can wake up only when the submarine cable begins to work to its full potentials. At present, software outsourcing cannot take off on a large scale, simply because bandwidth is too expensive. The submarine cable is definitely an answer to such a problem. But first of all, sound capacity building, cheap connectivity and proper management of the cable through contracting-out to overseas companies must be ensured through transparent deals to make it available to all stakeholders.


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