The devastating fire in Khawaja Tower, a 14-storey commercial building in the capital's Mohakhali, has not only taken away at least three lives so far, but has also triggered widespread disruptions in Internet and telecom services nationwide since it broke out on Thursday (26 October) afternoon.
It is due to the fact that the building accommodates two separate data centres, each connected to 10-12 International Internet Gateways (IEG), serving as service providers for hundreds of Internet Service Providers (ISP). .
"The ISPs dependent on the IEG data centres provide 70% of broadband Internet services across the country. As the data centres are shut down, Internet services are getting disrupted," said Emdadul Hoque, president of Internet Service Providers Association of Bangladesh (ISPAB).
Hoque estimates that approximately 60-70% of Internet users in Dhaka are currently encountering connectivity issues, while the fire has been hampering inter-operator calls as well. It could take up to a week to fully restore internet services.
And thus, this fire incident has brought to light how fragile the country's Internet infrastructure is.
As The Business Standard consulted experts for further insights, it has become clear that there have been significant shortcomings in planning, efficiency, and professionalism within the sector.
Additionally, the lack of sufficient fire safety protocols in a building of such importance has raised more questions than answers.
Syed Almas Kabir, former president of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (Basis), primarily attributed the disruption to a lack of proactive planning, emphasising that it's a global norm to have comprehensive disaster recovery plans in place.
Questioning the wisdom of relying on a single building to cater to the entire country's needs, he called for the establishment of multiple backup facilities.
"For instance, there could be another such infrastructure in Uttara, and even outside the capital in places like Jashore," he explained.
Likewise, Dr BM Mainul Hossain, a Professor at the Institute of Information Technology (IIT) of Dhaka University, termed the Khawaja Tower incident as a "single point of failure".
"Khawaja Tower is undoubtedly a very critical establishment. But it is never acceptable that the whole country's Internet and telecommunication services will be disrupted due to an accident in one single point," he said.
Hossain, also the author of the book "Artificial Intelligence, IoT and the New Technology's Fourth Industrial Revolution," made it a point that the general population shouldn't face difficulties due to such crises.
He also stressed the need for multiple sources of ISPs to ensure uninterrupted connectivity for consumers at all times.
"Even if one source encounters issues, it should be limited to a back-end problem and customers shouldn't be affected, considering that the Internet has become a fundamental necessity."
According to him, the onus is on the government to ensure this, considering that the operators may not have alternatives but to connect with just one or two data centres in the country.
"The standard is to conduct regular audits and promptly implement necessary measures. We shouldn't have waited for a crisis like this to unfold before wondering where things were going south," he clarified.
He also urged for a comprehensive restructuring of the entire landscape within this sector, as he believes only through such reforms could Bangladesh appeal to larger investments in the future.
"If the operational environment remains inadequate and incidents like this continue to cause multimillion-dollar losses, it might deter foreign investors from entering this market in the future," he cautioned.
Meanwhile, Kabir, who spent 10 years in academia, refrains from putting blame on any specific factor, considering it a collective failure.
"The issue is ingrained in our culture. We frequently make significant decisions without fully considering the pros and cons," he remarked.
He advocated for the formulation of a comprehensive master plan, the National Smart Bangladesh Architecture, emphasising the necessity for collaborative efforts between the private and public sectors. This coordination would facilitate the expansion and proper maintenance of the country's primary sources of Internet connectivity.
However, Kabir recalled the adage, "with great power comes great responsibility," and lamented the lack of adherence to this principle in the maintenance of Khawaja Tower.
According to him, given the building's significance, the responsible authorities should have demonstrated more sincerity and caution from the beginning.
Brigadier General Main Uddin, the Director General of Fire Service and Civil Defense, highlighted that although there were some fire extinguishers on various floors, there was a lack of a proper safety plan for Khawaja Tower, and the building's highly combustible nature led to the rapid spread of the fire.
He mentioned that the presence of batteries, storage units, cables, switches, and insulation foam, along with the lavishly furnished interiors on the 12th and 13th floors, all contributed to the swift propagation of the flames.
"A building of this calibre ought to have had an automatic fire extinguishing system, which, I presume, was not in place. This further showcases the deficiency in efficiency and professionalism among those entrusted with its management," Kabir regretted.
And such deficiencies are derived from the government's unrealistic complacency, believes Gawher Nayeem Wahra, founding convenor and member secretary of Disaster Forum (DF).
According to him, it is astonishing that a building like Khawaja Tower didn't have an automatic fire extinguishing system.
"But this is what happens when you consider yourself the so-called champion of disaster management," Wahra said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"The fire brigade is now stating the building didn't have proper fire safety. But why now? Why didn't they identify this issue earlier and notify the building management authority?" he questioned.
He also drew attention to Cyclone Hamoon, which made landfall on the Cox's Bazar coast on Tuesday (24 October).
"Since then, electricity, Internet and telecommunication services have remained disrupted in many places in Cox's Bazar. But this should not have occurred if there were adequate disaster management plans in place," he remarked.
"Until and unless we climb down from the mountain of complacency, we will continue to suffer," Wahra concluded.