An ICT Vision for Digital Bangladesh

Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed (Joy) ICT Advisor to the Honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh

With a vision of realising Digital Bangladesh by the year 2021, the Government of    Bangladesh has initiated many of the public sector reforms along with various e Governance initiatives. Three years ago the GDP growth in Bangladesh was 4.4 percent and today the country is at 7.5 per cent in the formal economy. Bangladesh bank estimates that the growthin the informal sector is adding another 2.5 per cent. Realistically, Bangladesh is close to 10 per cent GDP growth rate. Additionally, the poverty level in Bangladesh, from the fiscal year 2006 to fiscal year 2010, has dropped by 10 percent entailing that 50 million  Bangladesh nationals have been lifted out of poverty in Bangladesh. Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed (Joy), ICT Advisor to the Honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh shares his vision for the ‘Digital Bangladesh’ with Dr Ravi Gupta and Dr Rajeshree Dutta Kumar at the Prime Minister’s Office in Dhaka, Bangladesh

How in the next 5 years do you think ICT can transform Bangladesh?

Bangladesh has five main strategic thrusts towards building an inclusive economy: Building  Capacity; Connecting People; Serving Citizens; Driving Economy; Breaking Barriers. The two  drivers that will transform Bangladesh are a) e-Governance services or citizen services and b)  industry growth. To begin with, one of the major concerns was that all the digitisation of  government services would benefit only the city dwellers and the rural people will be left out  leading to an increase in the existing digital divide. But we did it in such a way that  digitisation is now benefitting the entire population and as a result, the greatest impact has  actually been felt in the rural areas. It is a tremendous driver of growth and development  beyond the cities. IT industry will become the next job creation engine in Bangladesh shaping  into much higher income sector than our traditional ones. My hope is that within the next  decade, the IT industry earnings will surpass the government sector. So, both in terms of the  lives of the rural population as well as the job growth sector, I hope that this Bangladesh will be a transformed Bangladesh.

What is your strategy to handle the increasing cost of
telecom and Internet sectors in Bangladesh?

It is not telecom but the Internet that is expensive. Telecom, in Bangladesh, is one of the cheapest in the world. The government has liberalised telecom policies. Prior to liberalisation, there was only one mobile operator in Bangladesh that had very high monopoly rates. So we  liberalised it, we issued six new licenses but it has not happened for the Internet sector. We  looked at what was holding back the development, why Internet cost was not dropping the  way the mobile and voice sectors grew, why is the data sector not growing. What we found was that there were several vertical and horizontal barriers in the policy itself, that were preventing growth. With the new policy that is coming, we wish to move towards unified licensing regime similar to what India has.

How do you plan to move towards 3G and 4G?

We plan to work towards an auction of 3G spectrum by June 2012. Currently, we are finalising the policy guidelines. We are trying to decide on the kind of auction that we will  have. We, certainly, do not wish to have a completely western style of auction as that will end  up driving the spectrum cost up and that cost will eventually go to the consumers. We  have some bandwidth available for one more operator to come in, but mobile sector is a very  competitive market here. So that is highly unlikely to happen. While we do not wish to drive up the cost too much, we do wish to keep it competitive.

How has the Government of Bangladesh planned to roll out the e-Governance  initiatives? Have you thought of outsourcing your ICT projects to other agencies?

When we started with our Digital Bangladesh plan, we identified various e-Governance and  e-Services projects that needed to be implemented. We identified three different tiers – a)  quick wind or short term projects that could be implemented quickly; b) mid-term projects,  typically, of 5-6 years; and c) long term projects of 10 years. A total of 270 short and  mid-term e-Governance projects were identified to be implemented the right way and  quickly. And, once the plan was formulated, we essentially gave this plan to each ministry to  implement on a priority basis. So, most of the immediate projects have already been  implemented or in the process of being implemented.

Outsourcing industry in IT and skill development go hand in hand. There is a need to have a good pool of IT manpower, which includes finishing skills to cater to the needs of Outsourcing sector. There is academia- industry gap and a need of education reforms in these areas.

We have completely revamped the education policy as part of the government agenda  independent of our Digital Bangladesh initiative. IT education is one of the essential elements  of education curriculum. This will help further down the line because the next generation will  be familiar with IT and at least have basic knowledge. As far as the industry skill is  concerned, frankly speaking, this is the area that we do not have any answer yet. We have  about 7000 computer science graduates in this country every year that are lacking in their  finishing skills, relevant vocational training, relevant IT skills set, and English  communications skill. What we are hoping is that private vocational training schools will pop  up to provide this. Our government is open to welcoming the private entities who could open a chain of trained centers.

For the ICT industry to grow in
two or three tier cities, is the Government of Bangladesh giving any tax incentives?

To encourage the growth of ICT industry, we eliminated all import duties on IT equipments, hardware or software. Now there is almost no import duty on IT equipment. In terms of the BPO industry, our government is giving tax breaks or holidays of 10 years or longer. We are in the process of building several IT parks. The government is going to provide this land at  very low costs to any IT company that comes in here. There are a couple of locations within  Dhaka city and we are actually in the process of building essentially an IT city just on the  outskirts of Dhaka, We really studied the Indian model and adopted it. Besides the tax  incentives we also have a fund set up by the Bangladesh bank to provide low interest loans to the IT industry. So, small startup firms in Bangladesh can take advantage of this provision.

eASiA 2011, I believe, has been a tremendous status symbol for Bangladesh

India is providing broadband connectivity to Panchayats, education institutions and public health centres. The knowledge network will improve collaboration and service delivery. What are you plans realted to these aspects?

We have built 4501 union information centres, which are the smallest local government  units in Bangladesh. A union comprises of several villages with the lowest level of local  government office existing, we have built essentially information kiosks like a cyber café,  aptly managed by usually a young girl or a boy from village whom we have trained on the  systems. The villagers can obtain information on online. All of these offices are now connected  through the mobile network but we intend to connect all these 4500 union information  centres to around 20,000 government offices throughout the country. We have several  projects on hand to connect all of these with broadband. We are partnering with the private  sector to develop the rest of the network on a PPP model. The big advantage we have in  Bangladesh is that the physical country is quite small. So our goal is that within the next 10  years we will have fibre to every union level and the last mile solution can be provided by  wireless, 3G or 4G. So once the backbone infrastructure is put in place it will be easier to spread the last mile solution to the village level. We have another project to cover all  government universities with fibre.

Are there any bilateral collaborations with your neighbouring countries?

Yes. We have some collaboration with National Informatics Center (NIC) in India. In general, all our e-Governance projects are based on outsourced model open to all vendors- domestic and  international. Many of the companies from Malaysia and China are here. Since our thrust is on PPP, we do not have direct government collaborations with them. Our collaboration is with  the industry and the foreign IT industry is very much present here participating in a lot  of projects.

With the country being open to IT investments, a comprehensive growth can be anticipated. Please comment.

Three years ago Bangladesh did not have the concept of an IT industry and e-Governance, and digitisation also did not exist in the government of Bangladesh. With our government’s  manifesto, it all began and the progress that has been made is highly commendable. I would  say that this government is moving as fast as possible. The growth in the industry is 40 per  cent year on year in the last three years, which is a phenomenal number. We would love to  get even faster, but so far we are quite happy with the growth in the IT sector employment and income.

How do you think initiative like
eASiA helps Bangladesh ICT industry?

eASiA 2011, I believe, has been a tremendous status symbol for Bangladesh. It really raises  our profile. You know, when we think of IT outsourcing, three years ago you would not have  thought of Bangladesh at all. Since last two years people have been talking about Bangladesh  as a potential IT outsourcing hub. I think, eASiA takes it to the next level with the foreign  experts coming to Bangladesh, speaking, seeing the development themselves. eASiA has been  a tremendous marketing platform for us as it has been instrumental in drawing international  attention to Bangladesh helping the IT industry to grow.