As you may know, the Global Information Technology Report 2005-2006, sponsored by the World Economic Forum has been released. According to the report, Bangladesh is marginally improved but going backwards in terms of its ICT development. The report uses the Networked Readiness Index (NRI), covering a total of 115 economies during the year 2005, to measure the degree of preparation of a nation or community to participate in and benefit from ICT developments. The NRI is composed of three component indexes which assess:
1. The environment for ICT offered by a given country or community,
2. The readiness of the community's key stakeholders - individuals, business and governments and
3. The usage of ICT among these stakeholders.
During the year 2004, Bangladesh's NRI score was -1.30, amongst the bottom four Least Developed Countries (LDCs) with rank 100th. In 2005 the score is -1.11, amongst the bottom six LDCs with rank going downward to 110th out of 115.
India now has forty four percent of the global outsourcing market. This is projected to grow to fifty one percent by the year 2008. However, along with this growth comes a problem. Countries such as India are seeing a rise in their cost of labor which gives Bangladesh a second chance at the train we missed the first time. To compete globally Bangladesh must develop its ICT industry. We already have the human resource. What we must have urgently is sufficient bandwidth and a stable supply of power.
During the Awami League's tenure we added over fifteen hundred megawatts of power production capacity. We had projected and planned for a growth of fifteen hundred megawatts of additional power production capacity in the next five years. Since this government has taken over they have added a net of zero megawatts of power production. I'm sure you are all feeling the effects of this. This does not just affect the ICT industry, but every facet of business and development. One simply cannot develop a nation with a shortage of electricity.
The Awami League government also took the first practical steps towards ICT development in Bangladesh. To encourage investment in the software industry we allocated one hundred crore taka in our 2000-2001 budget. We eliminated all import duties on computer hardware, software and peripherals. A desktop computer used to cost three lakh taka. We brought that price down to forty thousand taka. Where there were only ten to twelve thousand computers in use nationwide, now more than fifteen thousand are purchased every month. This has directly benefited all of you. The current government has since reinstated some of those taxes that we had eliminated.
Before our tenure, no government office had a computer. Even our embassy in Washington used a typewriter for all letters to the US Government! We began the process of computerization of all government offices.
During its first term the BNP government was presented with the option of connecting the country to a submarine fiber optic cable at no cost. Unbelievably, they refused this offer. The Awami League government then initiated the current submarine fiber optic cable project. By this time it was no longer an option to connect for free. Still, the project was created but elections were upon us before we could implement it. Then the BNP government came back to power. The project was redesigned. Originally, the plan was to build a cable from Bangladesh all the way to Singapore. This was done because there was no consortium cable under construction at that time through the Bay of Bengal to which we could connect. The project was delayed after the change in government and when it was finally reinitiated, a new consortium cable was under construction. The government chose to connect to this as the cost is shared among the consortium partners. However, the cost of the submarine cable project was subsequently inflated so that now the cable that has been built has cost the same as the originally planned cable to Singapore. The original planned site of the landing station was at Shitakunda in Chittagong but it was moved to Cox's Bazaar. This was done as there was no network link between Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar and so government cronies could make a huge profit building this network link and large kickbacks were paid to Hawa Bhaban.
Under the BNP, corruption has pervaded every sector of the government. The ICT sector has not been spared. Eighteen crore taka of research and development funds have simply disappeared and hundreds of crore taka have been misspent by the ICT Ministry.
The question now is, what do we do going forward? This brief does not purport to be a policy paper for the Awami League, but I would like to present you with some of my ideas. The main purpose of this seminar is to give me an opportunity to meet with all of you who represent the ICT industry in this country and take back some of your ideas and concerns. All of this will then be incorporated into Awami League's future policies.
With regards to power production, the Awami League has an established track record of developing the nation's power infrastructure. We initiated the privatization of power production which resulted in greater efficiency, reduced corruption and rapid growth. These policies will continue and we will build the necessary power production capacity to meet the demands of the entire nation now and into the future.
I also propose to develop e-governance initiatives. Putting government information online, such as budgets and expenditure will bring about transparency and accountability. Creating a nationwide database and network for the police will increase the efficiency of the law enforcement agencies, improve law and order, prevent instances of police abuse and help us fight terrorism. Online citizen processes such as tax filings, land registration, tender and procurement and public grievances along with online payment schemes for all of these will eliminate the scope for bribery and corruption. My goal is that eventually, all citizen transactions with the government can be completed online without you having to wait in line outside multiple government offices for days and bribing everyone from the peon to the secretary to do something as mundane as filing your taxes.
Then we have the issue of bandwidth. It is not enough just to build a submarine fiber optic cable. Bandwidth must reach the entrepreneurs. This requires a massive distribution network within the country. Still, just a network is not enough either. There must be sound policies put in place to regulate the distribution of the bandwidth. The current submarine cable provides Bangladesh with a bandwidth of ten gigabits per second while the current BTTB network can transmit a maximum of two megabits per second. That is barely one millionth of the capacity of the cable. Current BTTB plans do not call for the utilization of the full bandwidth for another four years! Also, the current policies call for the submarine cable to carry only voice traffic for the foreseeable future. That means that most of your businesses will not see any benefit from this cable. Lastly, the current regulatory framework calls for completely non-transparent control over the distribution of the bandwidth. What that means is that kickbacks to Hawa Bhaban will make up the largest portion of the bandwidth pricing. Bandwidth prices will follow the same trend as the price of all essentials in this country have during this government's term and you will pay double of what the actual cost is.
What we need is to build national data backbones and implement a balanced bandwidth distribution policy. What I would like to propose is to completely revamp the existing telecommunications regulatory commission, the BTTRC, making it more independent and transparent. Along with that, I propose allowing private telecommunications companies to build the backbones. From there the distribution network and the last mile solution can be spread out competitively among telecommunications companies and local ISPs. This would free the government of the cost of building the network and allow each locality to develop the solutions most appropriate for it based on the terrain and existing infrastructure.
In the software sector, entrepreneurs must pay more attention to developing local expertise rather than just trying to re-sell foreign software. We should not become just sales offices for foreign IT shops. On the export side one of the areas that appear to need some help is our ability for project management through the whole project. We need to improve our educational institutions and IT curricula to develop this expertise. We also need to initiate computer usage and training earlier, in our schools rather than in colleges.
We also need to think about technology that can change the lives of the common people. Whether that's a new way for the farmer to pump water or alternative fuel for our cars, we need to think of technology not just in terms of telecommunications or software but as a tool to improve our daily lives. This will increase efficiency in every aspect of our lives. I believe that maximum utilization of technology is our shortcut to modernization.
The government has spent millions of dollars setting up IT parks and ICT centers in places such as Silicon Valley. This simply does not work. What we need to do, instead, is to provide the infrastructure and policies and let the private sector, all of your businesses, flourish. I propose to continue the infrastructure development and tax cuts that we had initiated during our previous term. I also propose to set up a venture fund to finance promising IT startups in Bangladesh.
If we make it, it will be because of the entrepreneurs in the private sector, not the government. Microsoft was built by a college dropout. Yahoo was built by two Stanford students in a trailer. Hewlett Packard was started in a garage. We have to find our own Bill Gates and make sure they have the tools to succeed.