OPINION: Internet capacity: Where Bangladesh stands?

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - Bangladesh should act now to shift its focus on fibre optic based fixed Broadband Internet infrastructure to catch the global trend.  

It is universally recognised that a well-developed Broadband Internet infrastructure is essential for every citizen to participate in the new digital economy. Physical access to Internet infrastructure and its speed plays the most important role in determining how effectively services are provided to individuals, homes and businesses.

An overwhelming majority of Bangladeshi citizens gets access to the Internet using mobile cellular services (90 million mobile Internet subscribers vs 0.56 million fixed Internet subscribers). However, when it comes to Internet bandwidth usage, fixed Internet equals or surpasses that of mobile. This may be explained by the notion that mobile Internet, though used ubiquitously by everyone, i.e. government, businesses and individuals, but predominantly by individuals in areas such as social media, entertainment, online transactions etc., generally does not require heavy bandwidth usage. Fixed Internet, on the other hand, is mainly used by groups of people at homes and businesses requiring heavy bandwidth usage, i.e., Broadband.

Mobile Broadband globally is provided using wireless technologies such as 4G LTE, LTE-A now and in future by 5G, the deployment of which has already started in the USA, some countries in Europe and Asia. Bangladesh has also declared its intention to follow this global trend sooner rather than later. However, the availability of 5G enabled smart phones and their affordability together with mobile data price plans will be the determining factors for its adoption in Bangladesh. Based on our experience with the current LTE network coverage, quality of service, price points and adoption trends, one cannot be very optimistic that 5G experience will be dramatically different here.

What is the status of optical fibre based fixed Broadband using technologies such as FTTH/B and DOCSIS 3.0 HFC globally? Is it dying with the advent of 5G Broadband or reinventing itself and keeping it in contention for the future? If there is any global trend in this respect, it should be applicable to Bangladesh as well.

I had the opportunity to visit India, Turkey, the United States and Canada since January this year, and everywhere I took a keen interest and observed how Internet, media and TV entertainment, voice and other services are delivered at homes and businesses. The overwhelming trend everywhere is the delivery of all these services over a single medium, i.e. optical fibre by employing Internet technology. I vividly remember the days back in 1997 when I first moved to Toronto, I subscribed to the fixed services from multiple providers, i.e. phone service from Bell Canada delivered over copper wires, TV service from Rogers over coaxial cables and dial up Internet from Spectranet. Now all these services are delivered over a single optical fibre (Bell Canada) or hybrid fibre coaxial (Rogers) connection. We, in the industry, have been talking about such a transformation. But many countries have taken the necessary regulatory and technological initiatives towards this inevitable reality whereas my experience of the last 13 years in Bangladesh shows to the contrary. Let me provide the following examples in this connection:

In April 2018, George Cope, President and CEO of Bell Canada Enterprise (BCE) announced that, “The Bell team is proud to light up North America’s largest fibre network right here in Toronto. Bell’s all-fibre network will deliver the best Internet, TV and business connectivity services to Torontonians while enabling Canada’s largest city to innovate and compete at a global level with next-generation connectivity.”

The USD 1.5 billion Toronto fibre project is part of Bell’s historic reinvention of its network footprint with next-generation broadband fibre connections. Bell fibre to the premises (FTTP) service now delivers Internet access speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) with symmetrical upload and downloads. Speeds will increase to at least 5 Gbps in the next phase and ultimately to 40 Gbps and beyond in future.

With the Gigabit Fibre Internet service, customers can download a 10 MB photo in a tenth of a second or an entire 3 GB High Definition movie in just 24 seconds, upload a 500 MB business plan to the cloud in only 4 seconds or access the latest detailed stock quotes in the blink of an eye. With low latency, fibre also enhances the streaming and gaming experience, and with the new fibre-enabled Whole Home Wi-Fi service, Bell brings the smartest and fastest Internet access to every room of the home.

With FTTP, Bell also delivers the innovative Fibe TV service that has transformed the way Canadians watch television and made Bell the largest TV provider in the country. With superior picture quality, Fibe TV offers several exclusive features including the wireless Whole Home 4K PVR.

Verizon in the United States delivers Internet, TV and phone services using fibre optic cables in its all-in-one Fios offering to its customers. Fios has been around since 2005, though its original offerings were bare-bones compared to the current product, which offers very high-speed Internet, HD TV and phone service bundled into one.

Mukesh Ambani, Chairman of Reliance Industries of India, has recently declared optical fibre based fixed line Broadband as “the future” and announced the details of Jio’s upcoming high-speed Broadband Internet service, Jio Giga Fibre, which would come bundled with a landline connection, HD or 4K set top box and access to Jio’s Internet of Things (IoT) for a price range between Rupees 700 to 10,000. Jio will also support console gaming with compatibility for all gaming controllers.

In Turkey, in a report titled “Turkey’s digital future: Vision for the Broadband Plan” prepared by Axon Consulting for Vodafone Telekomunikasyon AS (January-2017), it says that Turkey stands at a right point in time to consider and realise the vision of expanding FTTH/B coverage to a significantly large part of the population.

The examples given above covering North America, Turkey and India provide ample testimony that optical fibre in the access network is an overwhelming global trend for providing fixed Broadband to homes and businesses for incumbent fixed line operators as well as new disruptive operators such as Reliance.

For ubiquitous Broadband access, are we going to put all our eggs in one basket and depend on the mobile operators alone or set up an environment where there will be a healthy competition between fixed and mobile Broadband following the global trend? Our telecom regulator has recently taken a very timely step of consolidating 2G, 3G and 4G licenses into one unified mobile license. The same approach needs to be taken in the arena of fixed telecom licensing which is totally fragmented at the moment and, as such, not at all conducive to the implementation of fibre optic based fixed Broadband requiring significant capital expenditure. Fortunately, we have an example in BTCL where the consolidation of all fixed telecom licenses has taken place and this needs to be replicated for the private sector fixed line operators.

A myriad of complex Regulatory challenges will need to be resolved for this to happen and BTRC has the recommendations of two studies commissioned by itself, i.e., Report on Unified Licensing Regime (ULR) by David Butcher and Associates (December-2009) and report on Public Consultation on ILDTS Policy (March-2018) as a starting point. This is a complex issue and deserves to be reviewed in a separate write-up. We can only hope that our policymakers will recognise the global trend in fibre optic based fixed Broadband and create the requisite regulatory environment for its deployment sooner, lest we miss the train.

Abul K Shamsuddin is a Telecom Analyst with professional experience of working in the Middle East, Canada and Bangladesh (at the CXO level).Email: akm.shams@yahoo.com


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