At noon, Samiha Tahsin was sitting at a cafe with her friends in the capital's Mohakhali, working on an assignment. Suddenly her phone pinged and a notification popped up. She saw her class representative had posted something with an urgent alert on the virtual group.
Samiha instantly clicked on the notification but it read – this webpage is not available. She noticed her mobile could not connect with Wi-Fi as she was sitting at a distance from the router. So, she turned on mobile data. But for some reason, her mobile data was not functioning either.
Anxious, she tapped the Wi-Fi option again and tried to connect. She saw five more Wi-Fi networks were available with her range, but as she did not know the password, she could not connect to any of those.
A frustrated Samiha thought how helpful it would have been if any of those networks shared their Wi-Fi with her device. When she shared this very thought with her friend Omran Jamal, he told her, he and his neighbours usually share their Wi-Fi passwords so they could help out each other in moments of crisis.
This idea helped Samiha and Omran, founders of Bonton Connect, pitch the idea for a start-up.
Bonton Connect is a Wi-Fi sharing app. It officially started its journey in November last year and instantaneously received its first seed funding from a foreign angel investor which helped them plan and work accordingly.
Using the app, one can share their Wi-Fi network and any user can use that by paying money to the owner. It is working with the motto of democratising internet and make it affordable for everyone and everywhere in the city.
"It is actually Uber for internet," explained Samiha.
While pitching the idea, Bonton team noticed that even well-off people avoid using mobile data as it seems expensive.
According to a report of GSMA, the people at the bottom 20% - in terms of income distribution – in Bangladesh cannot afford 1GB of data as it is equal to 11.4% of their monthly earnings.
"However, based on this data, we cannot say a big chunk of people are living outside the range of internet use, as they are using small data packages every now and then, but they are certainly unstable users. So, we decided to focus on this issue and solve this problem," shared Omran.
Using Omran's programming skills and previous experience of working at Jobike and Gaze, he started making an app to make the idea work. Through the app, Bonton team primarily figured out whether enough Wi-Fi networks are available in Dhaka city or not.
"Interestingly, we found that a minimum of two and a maximum of 15 routers are available at each point of Dhaka city. So, we became sure that we have enough networks to cover the city and execute our plan. We just need to turn those networks on," remarked the founder.
It seems ironic that though the whole city has Wi-Fi networks, there are people who cannot afford it. Basically, mobile data is expensive as telecom companies have maintenance costs of cellular base stations and other stuff, but for Bonton, there is barely any such issue. Thus, it can offer internet at a cheaper price.
Bonton has plans to keep only 20 percent of the user payment. The remaining 80 percent will go to the pockets of the service providers.
To buy 1 GB data package from mobile companies, a user has to spend minimum a Tk25 and maximum Tk77, with speed and length dependent on price of package.
On the contrary, Bonton is unlimited for its user. It will cost only Tk5 for the whole day, if the user sticks to one place. If the user is travelling, it will cost Tk10 per day. And, its payment method is pretty easy.
Bontonis free now, but will officially charge its clients through digital payments from December.
While setting up infrastructure, the Bonton creators are focusing on the population density and living standards while choosing and covering an area. It has already covered Mohakhali and is working to cover three more areas – Dhanmondi, Green Road and Mohammadpur – with its nine-member team.
In these areas, Bonton connects its user with the nearest, strongest and least congested Wi-Fi network using the app. Fifty users per day are using the Bonton app and this number is increasing.
However, reaching this number was not a smooth journey, as the safety issue of a network is vital for both users and service providers.
"We worked very hard to break the ice and make them believe that this is a safe process to work with. It automatically turns on host network isolation that no longer lets users communicate with other users. Even the service provider can always remove a user if they do not want to share their network for any reason. The user will then be instantly connected with another network in about 1.2 seconds," shared Samiha.
But it is still an issue and that is why Bonton has not started using household Wi-Fi for sharing connection. It has set up routers and is providing free internet from internet service providers (ISPs) for its users, so that they learn to rely on them.
"The way Uber and Pathao started their journey, we are doing the same. But hopefully, we will not have to continue setting up routers in the future and more service providers, including households, will show an interest and register to share their networks," Samiha voiced.
Though its service is similar to that of an ISP, they are not the same. Rather, Bonton is working hand in hand with ISPs and helping them grow.
"Our plan is to expand the services of ISPs and we are working on it. We will not replace ISPs. Rather, we want to target people who are using mobile data and provide them internet at a way cheaper rate.
"So yes, we have a conflict of interest with telecommunication companies and we do not know how far it will affect the telecommunication companies' business and also our relations with them," admitted Omran.
Shubho Sarker is using Bonton for the last one month in Mohakhali. He barely used to buy mobile data but now he frequently uses Bonton at work to use social media and visit websites. He is satisfied with its service, but has suggested improving the connection speed as it slows down in peak hours. He hopes to use the app even when it starts charging the users.
Samiha explained that the connection might slow down in peak hours as the number of users is increasing. However, the Bonton team is working hard to solve this problem and is trying to speed up the connection from December.
In future, Bonton has plans to cover the whole Dhaka city and make internet connection accessible even in the remote areas of Bangladesh.