Isha khan’s Weblog


Bringing Bangladesh into the Internet age
July 9, 2008, 2:02 pm
Filed under: Bangladesh

Bringing Bangladesh into the Internet age
By Jeremy Wagstaff

In Bangladesh, where less than 1 percent of the population has
Internet access and where the rare broadband connection is
prohibitively expensive, bridging the digital divide may require new
approaches.

A group of Bangladeshi expatriates think they have found one that
could work – a plan to bring affordable Internet access to their
homeland through a blend of high-end wireless technology and social
entrepreneurship.

The service, a joint venture between several Bangladeshi-born U.S.
citizens and an Internet company based in Oregon, couples paid
service for consumers and businesses with free access for schools,
and employs a seldom-deployed wireless system.

“We are unique in terms of our vision,” said Reaz Shaheed, chief
executive of the venture, AlwaysOn Network Bangladesh. “We are not
interested only in profit. We also have a social agenda.”

Shaheed said providing free Internet access for schools was more
than a gesture. By getting students online, and keeping them there,
he hopes to build demand, which will pay off later. “We think it’s a
good investment,” he said. “We don’t see them as freeloaders.”

For most people in Bangladesh, Internet access is anything but free.
A slow 10 to 15 kbps, or kilobits per second, connection costs about
$15 a month. Faster services command a hefty premium. A 64 kbps
connection is about $65 a month, and a one megabit per second, or
mbps, broadband connection is about $600.

Shaheed says that his rates will vary, but he says that he will be
able to offer a 64 kbps connection for as little as $15.

While Shaheed talks gladly of a social purpose, he said the offer of
free access for schools was not the reason why AlwaysOn won its
license to provide the service. “What motivated the government,” he
said, was that “we were willing to cover the whole country and
provide Internet to the rural areas.”

To do that, Shaheed turned to a technology developed by SOMA
Networks, based in San Francisco. It has been adopted by AlwaysOn
Network, based in Portland, Oregon, which delivers high-speed
wireless Internet access to rural areas of Oregon. AlwaysOn Network
owns about 25 percent of the Bangladeshi venture, with 10
Bangladeshi nationals owning the rest.

Shaheed, a Bangladeshi-born engineer who worked for 23 years at
Intel, says that the SOMA technology was particularly suited to
Bangladesh’s conditions: heavy monsoon rains, winter fog and densely
packed urban areas. It is also easy to set up: Subscribers either
install a unit in their home or on an outside wall for those
buildings far from a base station, said Frank Petkovich, senior
director of corporate strategy at SOMA.

The Bangladeshi service is based on a cellular phone technology
called W-CDMA, or Wideband Code Division Multiple Access. The
technology allows a broadband link to be achieved up to 15
kilometers, or about 9 miles, from a base station, Shaheed said.

Shaheed said a test run among about 100 subscribers in parts of the
Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, was successful enough to convince him to
quit his job at Intel, which he did recently. By the end of this
year he hopes to cover metropolitan Dhaka as well as surrounding
schools. Within a few years, he said, he hopes to have the whole
country covered.

Most of the existing Internet connections for Bangladeshis are via
GPRS, or General Packet Radio Service, a wireless standard for
mobile data transmission that is being replaced elsewhere by faster
technologies.

SOMA Networks says that business models blending technological and
commercial arguments with a social purpose will proliferate as
policy makers around the world aim to connect more people to modern
communications networks.

“What we see globally is governments putting together significant
funds to bring Internet access to places that don’t have it,” said
Tom Flak, senior vice president of operations at SOMA. “It’s
becoming more of a social mandate now, and broadband is considered
less of a luxury today than a necessity.”

http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/07/09/business/wireless10.php

Posted by Isha Khan, who can be reached at bdmailer@gmail.com

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