The Covid-19 pandemic should have moved Bangladesh one step forward towards materialising the dream of becoming 'Digital Bangladesh'.
Moving to a digital platform got easier in March when everything from offices, educational institutions, healthcare and even justice, shifted to the virtual platform. The number of Internet users went up from 99.984 million in February to 103.254 million in March – right after the government declared the general holidays to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
But these last few months have been a frustrating experience for Internet users as slow Internet, poor network coverage, and expensive data marred our efforts to shift our workplace to the virtual world.
Last week, the Digital Quality of Life Index 2020 by Surfshark placed Bangladesh at the bottom 10 in terms of Internet affordability, Internet quality, electronic infrastructure, electronic government and electronic security.
Md Jahangir Alam, the owner of Bill Gates International School, Dhaka, said even though they are running online classes, many of his students dropped out as their parents cannot afford the Internet bill. Also, poor Internet connectivity disrupts the classes.
"Each class takes place for 30 minutes and most of it is lost to poor Internet connection," said Jahangir Alam.
Though the number of users rose in March, it declined again to 101.187 million in April, as per the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) data, since a lot of small and medium scale entrepreneurs closed their enterprises for good and cut off their Internet connections.
In June, the number of subscribers went back up to 103.47 6 million, as offices resumed. The Internet also slowed down again.
"I have online meetings almost every day. But I keep getting disconnected in the middle of my meetings. I cannot work comfortably," said Fariha, a private service holder.
In Bangladesh, more than 90 percent Internet subscribers are mobile Internet users. Despite having entered the 4G era, mobile Internet speed during the pandemic has been anything but satisfactory.
The highest average download speed in the country was recorded in the third week of January (11.22 Mbps), according to US based web services Ookla. Since then the speed has been in gradual decline.
The lowest average mobile Internet speed was recorded in the last week of March (8.78 Mbps) – the beginning of general public holidays.
From April 2020 to July 2020, average mobile Internet speed was 10.49 Mbps, while in December 2019 to January 2020 it was more than 11Mbps.
The scenario is the same for broadband connections as well.
Broadband connections mostly use optical fibre. Back in February and the first two weeks of March, the average broadband Internet speed was more than 25 Mbps. It slowed down to 23.47 Mbps in April. Although the situation slightly improved in May with an average speed of 24.12 Mbps, it did not cross 25 Mbps till June 2020, as per BTRC data.
Now, the City Corporations' drive to remove open cables from streets and the damage to the optical-fibre while lifting sand in Cox's Bazar has made the situation worse.
"Before this pandemic, students and working parents did not use bandwidth in the day time. But now they all are staying home and using the Internet. With the old users, new users have been added," said Sumon Ahmed Sabir, chief technology officer of Fiber@Home.
"For some small ISP providers, the bandwidth use has almost been double their capacity," he added.
Sabir went to say that subscribers in remote and rural areas were facing most of the problems as a majority of them are 2G mobile Internet users.
Meanwhile, the 15 percent supplementary duty (SD) proposed in the new budget, a 5 percent increase from 10 percent, has made Internet more expensive at a time when people cannot survive without it.
"The price hike has caused more trouble. A subsidised Internet service would have helped those students who cannot afford the cost of data," Sumon said.
According to the BTRC, 50 percent of total subscribers were 2G users, 38 percent were 3G subscribers and only 12 percent were 4G subscribers in FY2018-2019.
Meanwhile, the Post, Telecommunication and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar played down allegations of slow Internet saying he had not received any serious complaints in this regard.
"But we are aware of some technical glitches," he said. He went on to blame lack of 4G expansion and low spectrum of the telcos for the situation.
"Before the pandemic, people used the Internet for voice calls and 2G is enough for a voice call. The demand for the 4G Internet was city-centric, especially, among businesses. Our 4G expansion was therefore carried out in the cities. In rural areas many people are not receiving quality service because a 4G connection is necessary for minimum speed," he added.
"Another reason is that the telco's spectrum is low. Our largest mobile operator is Grameenphone. Fifty four percent of total subscribers use Grameenphone. But their spectrum is low. In 2018, Grameenphone bought some spectrum from an auction. But we think they need at least 50 Megahertz spectrum to meet the demand of their clients. At the same time, they need to upgrade their network to 4G," said the minister.
The minister went on saying, in January we used 1000Gbps bandwidth and in August the use has increased to 2100 Gbps. That means the use of bandwidth has almost doubled in just eight months.
According mobile phone operators, their voice calls have dropped by 20 percent and the use of Internet has increased by 40 percent. On the other hand, broadband users have increased 1.5 times.
"I have been telling the telcos to increase their spectrum and expand to 4G since 2018. But they could not foresee that there will be a radical change in Bangladesh and the demand will rise this way. As a result, they did not invest as required. Hence, now they cannot ensure quality service."
The minister added, "It is true that we cannot meet the demand but everything is going on smoothly even during this pandemic. Yes, if the speed was a bit better, work would have also been a little better, but nothing has stopped."
Telco companies, meanwhile, did not shy away from sharing part of the blame, although they squarely pointed fingers at the high price of spectrum.
Md Hasan, head of external communications of Grameenphone, said, "GP is working relentlessly to ensure optimal customer experience through continuous modernisation and innovation of network solutions, products, and services. However, TowerCo regime (independent telecom tower companies) is still not operational to meet growing customer and industry needs through network expansion. It is not a secret that to achieve the Digital Bangladesh ambition, telecom networks need to be enhanced further, and considerable amounts of the spectrum would be required. To make that happen, the spectrum price needs to be reduced significantly."
Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh secretary general Brig Gen S M Farhad (Retd) also reiterated that spectrum price in Bangladesh was the highest in the world when compared to per capita income. He further said the availability of 4G sets in the country was low, by way of explaining the low 4G coverage of the operators.
"Even during the pandemic, the carriers are providing uninterrupted services, which deserves appreciation," he added.
Despite the minister squarely blaming the mobile operators for the poor state of Internet connectivity, the fact remains that for a country branding itself as 'Digital Bangladesh', being ranked among the bottom 10 in the world in terms of digital quality of life, is very poor optics. For nearly two decades now the government has been advertising its efforts of taking digital services to the farthest corners of the country. But the manner in which the pandemic has exposed the weakness in the system raises valid questions about the quality of digital service actually reaching the people.