Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be in Bangladesh with you today, and to be able to take part in this seminar.
With over 50 million mobile cellular subscriptions, Bangladesh is clearly one of the world’s major mobile markets. And there is still tremendous potential for growth, with mobile cellular penetration of around 30% countrywide at the end of 2009, compared to an average of over 50% in developing countries as a whole.
Bangladesh also has a long way to go in getting its people online, with one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world. Broadband access is unaffordable to the majority of the population, and as a result broadband is virtually non-existent in Bangladesh today.
I am an optimist, as many of you know, and so I see this not as a problem but as one of the most extraordinary opportunities Bangladesh has ever had.
The opportunity to leap forward and embrace the internet age, and to become a fully-fledged member of the knowledge society.
I am confident that this will be a most remarkable decade for ICTs in Bangladesh.
Because Bangladesh’s telecoms regulator, BTRC – here with us today – just announced in January that guidelines for 3G licensing will be complete by June, ahead of an open auction for at least four UMTS network operating concessions by the end of the year.
There is huge market potential in Bangladesh, and some of the world’s biggest mobile operators have already expressed a serious interest in the UMTS licences being auctioned.
This is hardly surprising. I was in Barcelona just a couple of weeks ago for the Mobile World Congress, and it was abundantly clear there that mobile broadband is the future.
A country like Bangladesh, with limited fixed-line infrastructure, stands to reap the real benefits of the mobile broadband revolution.
I am optimistic that this will happen, and that the government and the agencies relevant to ICT here will do everything in their power to meet the commitments to creating ‘Digital Bangladesh’ by 2021 – which will mark the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence.
Digital inclusion will be key to Bangladesh’s progress in the next decade, as it takes advantage of the power of its tremendous pool of human capital and human brainpower.
We have already seen this, of course, with initiatives such as the famous Village Phone Programme, which has seen ICT services brought into the remotest areas of Bangladesh.
Village Phone now provides an opportunity for over 210,000 people – mostly women – in rural areas to earn a living, while at the same time delivering access to mobile services for millions of people across Bangladesh.
As we move forward, however, there is now a clear need for national broadband strategies and policies; meaningful broadband targets and goals; and putting in place the necessary incentives and conditions to achieve rapid mobile broadband deployment.
As broadband becomes more widespread, there will also be more risks and threats enabled by that very same fast internet access – so issues of cybersecurity will also need to be addressed.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would now like to turn to an issue which unfortunately affects Bangladesh more than most other countries: I am referring to natural disasters, to which Bangladesh – through a combination of geography and climate – is particularly prone.
ICTs can do a great deal to help – both in providing emergency telecommunications in the event of a disaster (as ITU is doing right now, in Haiti, for example) and in providing essential early warnings which can potentially save millions of lives.
In 2007, at BTRC’s request, ITU delivered a study on an effective early warning system for communities in Chittagong.
This year – indeed within the next few months, I hope – we are planning to work closely with BTRC on providing an assessment on ICT and disaster circumstances in Bangladesh.
This will hopefully be a first input towards the development of the National Emergency Telecommunications Plan, which is envisaged by ITU in collaboration with other UN agencies such as the World Food Programme, UNDP and UNEP.
Concerning Bangladesh’s aspirations to launch a satellite, ITU has provided detailed information as well as technical assistance and training – through both the Radiocommunication and the Development Bureaus.
We are also working actively this year with BTRC on important regulatory issues, including the interconnection framework, cost modelling, and tariff policies, and we are exploring ways to promote effective competition and ensure a conducive environment for investment in Bangladesh.
In that respect, I would like to congratulate the government on its decision to make ICT access more affordable by introducing a conducive tax policy.
ITU is delighted to have such a close working relationship with Bangladesh as a Member State – but we would also welcome more active participation in ITU’s activities and Study Groups from Bangladesh’s busy private sector.
Could I therefore be so bold as to encourage the minister and the regulator to expedite ITU Sector Membership for Grameenphone, along with any other new potential Sector Members who may be interested in joining us?
In closing, I would like to say just a few words about a subject which is absolutely crucial to the future of any nation: the subject of education.
During ITU Telecom World 2009 in Geneva last October, BTRC met with the Director of BDT, and we were very interested to hear about Bangladesh’s plans to digitize schools – an essential first step in creating a new digitally-educated generation.
In this very domain, ITU launched ‘Connect a School, Connect a Community’ at ITU Telecom World 2009. This is a new public-private partnership effort to promote broadband school connectivity to serve both students and the communities in which they live.
‘Connect a School, Connect a Community’ aims to support countries worldwide in connecting all schools to broadband Internet services by 2015. And I am looking forward to discussing this flagship initiative in more depth with several of you individually during my visit here in Bangladesh.
I am also very encouraged to see that Bangladesh has just filed a formal application to include .bangla as a country code Top Level Domain, or ccTLD.
The application was filed online by the Prime Minister – who has honoured us with her presence here today – from her home, on behalf of the nation.
The application was symbolically filed exactly 58 years after students laid down their lives on the streets of this very city to retain their rights to speak Bangla as the state language.
I am very much in favour of this continued internationalization of the internet – which in this particular case will facilitate web browsing and content generation for some 300 million Bangla-speaking people around the world.
But first, let’s get to work and let’s help to create Digital Bangladesh!