In 2018, Bangladesh emerged as the fifth-largest Internet-using nation in the Asia-Pacific region. Two decades ago, the country’s position was below tenth.
Nowadays, it takes only a few seconds to download or upload a document, or file, and send it anywhere in the world. However, can you imagine a scenario where sending or receiving an email takes 12 hours – or even a day?
If you are a millennial, you probably cannot picture this, but that was exactly the situation at the dawn of the internet era in Bangladesh, in 1993, when people used offline email systems.
Md Aminul Hakim, president of Internet Service Providers Association Bangladesh (ISPAB), said that the average Internet speed, in the beginning, was below 16 kilobits per second (kbps).
Currently, the country's average broadband speed is 25.08 megabits per second (Mbps) - which is 156thousand times more than what it was in the beginning- and mobile Internet speed is 9.06 Mbps, said the president of ISPAB.
This growth was possible with the relentless efforts of some stakeholders, including Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and businesses.
"There were lots of challenges in the early days – including the poor quality of Internet connections, a lack of necessary equipment and infrastructure, plus a high price," said Aminul, chief executive officer of Amber IT Limited, a leading ISP in the country.
In 2018, Bangladesh emerged as the fifth-largest Internet-using nation in the Asia-Pacific region, according to recent data rele ased by Internet World Stats. Two decades ago, the country's position was below tenth.
Offline e-mail era and satellite-connected Internet
Hakim said that in 1993, offline e-mail communication was run through a unified communications and collaboration (UCC) protocol server based in Singapore.
All the emails used to be delivered through that server. Users of offline email systems had to sign into that server, twice every 24 hours, to send emails or check their inboxes.
Then in June 1996, Bangladesh started its journey to speedier internet.
The country started using the Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT), a wireless communication system that uses a combination of a small antenna and satellite terminal equipment.
It was connected to Thaicom – a Thailand-owned satellite service.
At that time, there was no question of calculating data speed in megabits or gigabits per second, as kilobits per second was the only option for internet subscribers.
The maximum internet speed was 64 kbps back then.
"It used to take 30 minutes to one hour to download a small picture at that time," said Hakim.
Without the minimum infrastructure in place during the 1996-2006 period, internet was provided via dial-up connections. Users called the internet providers to get access to the Internet via their telephone lines.
That barred many people from using the Internet, because telephone connections were too expensive and often unobtainable by the consumers.
"The ISPs, which had more telephone lines, could connect more customers. However, this was very expensive for smaller ISP companies," said MA Hakim.
The cable factors
Low quality cables used in setting up Internet connections were another obstacle to the development of the Internet in Bangladesh.
In the beginning, a coaxial radio frequency connector – a type of electrical connector designed to work on radio frequencies – was used for Internet connections.
The maximum data speed could not surpass 16 kbps to 32 kbps through this cable.
In the dial-up system, customers' modems had to match with the service providers' modems, and users could get connections of 8 kbps bandwidth.
However, in 2001, Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) – an international telecommunications standard that permits high-bandwidth data transfer – was introduced in Bangladesh.
It enabled the ISPs to provide connections of higher speeds and boosted Internet penetration in the country.
In 2003, the asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) cable was the new addition to the data transmission system and allowed for even speedier Internet connections providing up to one Mbps bandwidth.
However, still, the Internet connection was frequently disrupted because this copper cable would get stolen.
BTTB's inability to handle pressure
As Internet connections were set up with land phone calls linked through dial-up servers till 2001, the Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB) (now BTCL) equipment often failed to meet demand, said Hakim.
Hakim said, "That was another challenge as there were not enough equipment suppliers on the market like Huawei and ZFP today."
Ericsson and Nokia were the key equipment brands in the country but their products were not available.
Optical fibre and submarine cable: the game changers
The years 2005 and 2006 were a game-changing time for a digital Bangladesh when the country first started using optical fibre cables instead of copper cables to establish Internet connections.
In 2005, the Internet speed had increased in an unimaginable way after ISPs started using this cable to set up connections in all major towns across the country.
May 20 of the following year was the monumental date when Bangladesh entered the South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe (SEA-ME-WE) gateway through its first submarine cable connection.
From then on, access to the Internet increased dramatically. Mobile phone operators provided Internet services on users' handsets. Internet is now everywhere.
Now the ISPs provide 8-10 Mbps internet for Tk700 per month.
It has become a growing employment sector for young graduates who are providing services at home and abroad.
At present, Bangladesh is the second-largest online workforce supplier with six lakh active freelancers who have generated over $100 million annually, according to the GSM Association – an industry organisation that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide.
The government is expecting earnings from information communication technology (ICT), or ICT products, to reach around $5 billion by 2021.