Radhika Lal  
Programme Specialist, UNDP/SDNP_NY  
  

   


Mission Report: SDNP Bangladesh
July 1-9, 1999
  

 


Table of Contents:

Objectives.
I. Project Background & Status
II. Connectivity Situation and Options for SDNP
III. Business Plan and Sustainability
IV. Other Technical Issues
V. Staffing Recommendations
VI. Content Preparation and Database Design
VII. Co-ordination with SEMP Partners and Related Organizations
VIII. Pilots, Demonstration Projects and Public Access Centres
Summary and Conclusions
Annex I: Terms of Reference for SDNP/SEMP NPPS and IT Consultants
Annex 2: The Pilot Phase Project - Technical Setup


Objectives

The objectives of the mission to Bangladesh were to provide programming support and technical backstopping to SDNP Bangladesh as follows:

  1. Recommend an appropriate connectivity solution for the SDNP pilot project phase in Dhaka.
  2. Make technical recommendations on the hardware, software, and manpower requirements of the SDNP
  3. Make recommendations for the most efficient system of operation and maintenance of the SDNP
  4. Based on lessons learnt from past experiences with SDNs in other countries, highlight the best practices as well as the problems and pitfalls to be avoided; provide suggested next steps for the project during the pilot phase.

I. Project Background & Status

2. In 1997, the Government of Bangladesh approved the UNDP-assisted Sustainable Environment Management Programme (SEMP) [project: BGD/96/007/A/01/99.] Built into this programme is a sub-programme component 4.5, "Awareness and Advocacy and Training and Education" which constitutes the basis for SDNP in Bangladesh. The projected objective of the Sustainable Development Network Project (SDNP) is to create all appropriate mechanism to facilitate the exchange of information/knowledge among development partners, academia, policy makers and the civil society, both national and international, to further better implementation the SEMP programme and sustainable development more generally in Bangladesh.

3. As currently conceived, the methodology for achieving these aims in a sustainable way, is to consider a model where SDNP would be a non-profit Internet service provider (ISP) having a central hub in Dhaka city at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), and five regional nodes in Chittagong, Khulna, Barisal, Sylhet, and Rajshahi. This would involve a combination of systems including Local Area Networking, Wide Area Networking, and Microwave links. Subscribers to the SDN would be given access to standard Internet services as well as to a database maintained by BIDS. The target subscribers would include Ministries of the Government of Bangladesh and other agencies that are implementing the various components of SEMP. These agencies would be allowed to contribute to the database, and/or through the SDN and have their websites, setup to disseminate information on their activities and achievements, hosted on the SDNP server. In addition the SDNP would also cater to other corporate users wishing to access the database and to standard Internet services. Such users might include national and regional press clubs, academic and research institutions, and public libraries.

4. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) is the executing agency for the five year $ 1.4 million program. The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), an important national institution undertaking and promoting study, research and dissemination of knowledge in the field of development economics demography and other social sciences related to planning of national development and social welfare, is the implementing agency for SDNP.

5. Project implementation is just beginning. An initial core of the Steering Committee (SC), to provide advisory support to the SDNP co-ordinator and the host institution BIDS, has been constituted. It comprises IT specialists as well as representatives of the Government; of the SEMP partners, of the media, of academic/research Institutions, of the private sector, and other stakeholders. Prof. Jamilur Reza Chowdhury of BUET is its chair. The first SC meeting is scheduled for the week of July 12th , 1999.

6. An inception workshop, an important step in Bangladesh to formally begin the process of concretising SDNP, was held on July 4th 1999. In addition to the keynote paper by the project director, Prof. M. Asaduzzaman of BIDS, stakeholders, which included the ISPs, were presented with information on the projected technical setup for SDNP, the results of a preliminary survey done with "data users" and "data disseminators", and the experiences of other SDNPs, their modes of sustainability and lessons learned. Input from the stakeholders provided information on on-going initiatives by other sectors and focused on the conditions under which the project could be sustainable, whether or not the project should offer services free of charge (which the ISPs felt could undermine their own profitability), whether given the pace at which the Internet was proceeding to penetrate Bangladesh there should be a rethinking about the form of the project, the ways in which the project could reach out to the poorest of the poor.

7. As per the project implementation plan (PIP), outlined by BIDS, over the next few months, the project is expected to:

  • Determine connectivity solution and contract selected ISP;
  • Recruit project staff; see attached TORs;
  • Train project and other BIDS staff;
  • Procure necessary hardware and software for SDN;
  • Prepare BIDS site and arrange communication systems and other necessary facilities such as electricity, a stand-by generator, UPS, etc.;
  • Install and operationalise central hub in BIDS, including LAN, intranet, etc.;
  • Develop database;
  • Develop BIDS policy for SDN usage by BIDS staff;
  • Recast/revise budget with approval of UNDP and the Ministry of Environment;
  • Operationalise desktop publication section of SDNP for printing/publishing brochures/reports for information dissemination on SDN.

II. Connectivity Situation and Options for SDNP

8. Connectivity in the country still seems to be all issue as the number of users has increased at a much faster than bandwidth and basic telecommunications infrastructure. Bangladesh entered the Internet through Drik (http://www.drik.net). Estimates of Internet users in the country vary. According to some sources: In December 1996 the number of Internet users were one thousand, by December. 1997, the number had shot up to 12,000. In December 1998, there were over 30,000 users (others put the number at half of this) and projections put the number at more than sixty thousand for 2000 and more than one 100,000 by 2002. Telephone to user ratio in the capital is 1:2, although for the country as a whole the number is much lower than that. The Internet gateway for the country is at 128k. The fact that Bangladesh does not still have its own top-level national domain, .bd, increases the congestion on the gateway still further. As a result, access to the Internet is usually saturated in particular at peaks times. Dial-up services are offered at 33.6 kbps but most users connect at it maximum of 21.6 kbps. Internet connectivity is offered basically in the capital city, Dhaka, of the 5 but the divisional headquarters, Chittagong does have some ISPs and Sylhet is in the process of being connected. The rest, I expect, have only e-mail over dial-up.

9. The over 20 ISPs in the country are connected with Internet Backbone mainly via Singapore Telecom or Hong Kong Telecom. According to the major ISPs, the Bangladesh Telephone and Telegraph Board (BTTB) has restricted the up-stream providers that they can deal with to 8, and on terms that are highly unfavourable to the ISPs. In addition the latter must pay a royalty charge of a $1000/month to BTTB. The BTTB charge for VSAT operation is apparently eight, times higher than in neighbouring India. I.e. in India, the charge is $ 1000, whereas in Bangladesh the charge is $ 8000. Many VSAT operators offer a $ 3000 monthly charge to their users for access to 64 kbps connection, a charge which is 250 times lower than that of BTTB. For independent organisations, agencies, or departments the options are: dial-up lease line (max 33.6 kbps), radio modem (max distance of 30 miles), Zaknet (for fast download only), or it VSAT connection. (Either independently or via an ISP).

VSAT: At present, an independent VSAT, at a monthly charge of $6000-8000 and installation charges of $600, and a minimum contract period of 5 years, is not justifiable at this point.

ZakNet: Another option for faster download only though, exists in the form of ZakNet. With ZakNet, an Internet users request for Internet data still goes through land lines (requiring a connection to on ISP). However, data from Internet servers are transmitted back to the user's computer via satellite from Asia Sat 2, which has a footprint covering the Middle East, Asia, East Africa, Eastern Europe and parts of the Australian continent. To be able to use the satellite service, Internet users need to install a ZakNet PC RC 2101 card into their computers, which is connected by cable to a 1.8 meter satellite dish pointed to the general direction of Asia Sat 2. The user's Internet service provider should also be a subscriber of ZakNet. Proshika used to be subscriber but has now given up on this. Grameen Cybernet still offers this service. The current cost is $ 1200/month for 3GB download ($ 2,000 for 6 GB and $ 3,000/month for 12 GB download) and $ 500 is required for the card and dish. We heard mixed reviews about this option, i.e. downtime, difficulties connecting etc. (For details see http://www.zak-sat.net/index1.html)

Radio: BTTB has assigned Spread Spectrum radio frequency band in the range of 2 GHz for point to point wireless communication between computers. Licensing is not required to operate RF equipment in the FCC (in USA) designated Spread Spectrum bands. Radio modem connectivity is possible within a 30-mile radius at a rough cost of $ 20,000 plus. The cost is high for the performance that we witnessed at the neighbouring UGC site (although we were informed that this was not exactly typical, it is nevertheless a concern).

X.25: BTTB operates an X.25 based PSDN (public switched data network) and this network is being extended with nodes at different divisional headquarters. However, the main issue here is speed 9600 bps.

Recommendation 1: Connectivity for "mother node" at BIDS: For the pilot phase project (PPP): given cost considerations, still to be determined connectivity requirements of the target audience and concerns about the appropriateness of SDNP being an ISP, it is suggested that SDNP acquire a dial-up lease line (max $ 1,000/month) from an appropriate ISP such as Bangladesh Online Ltd. (the selection is based on the ISPs we visited). which appears to have a good reputation for support and is considered to be reliable. (See Annex 2 for details of selection). We were told by many of the ISPs that telephone lines are in short supply and would be hard to obtain, nevertheless we should have a few dial-up lines for important data contributors to connect to the main server at BIDS.

10. There are some additional unique features of the connectivity scene in Bangladesh, which have a possible bearing on SDNP's niche and thus need to be considered. Of the over 20 ISPs, some of them are major NGOs who have operations in the ISP field. For example, Proshika (2000 users), Grameen Cybernet (2500-3000 users) and its related concern Grameen Communications (40 users)), Brac-BDMail Network (1800 users and a provider of a lease line for some UN agencies) with a user base spread primarily over business, NGOs, and students. In addition to providing Internet connectivity, ISPs like Proshika also offer services, such as system integration, software development, training and hardware configuration, This raises questions about the possible role of SDNP as an ISP, and particularly in the case of Dhaka, especially if the user constituency that it tries to reach is already connected or if such users would get accounts with these NGOs. Further, those SDNPs who function primarily as ISPs were often pioneer providers in those countries.

Recommendation 2: Connectivity for Partners: This is urgent. SEMP and related partners should be queried as to their connectivity situation. This is to be achieved in the course of undertaking a Needs Assessment Survey of partners and related organisations as to their connectivity as well as their information resources (and details of the format that they are in). TORs attached as Annex 1.

Recommendation 3: Connectivity for regional nodes: As the PPP is extended to the regions, beginning with Chittagong, it is recommended that the SDNP project proceed in the same way that SDNP has often proceeded and the way that the two other organisations that we spoke to, i.e., University Grants Commission and the Open University are doing in the context of regional networking. Since X.25 is too slow and the railway operated fiber optic too expensive they have proceed along lines of offering email via dial-up as part of their first phase with the hope of getting independent VSATs for the regional nodes in the future. (In the case of Chittagong, aside from dialling into the mother node, the other option in to connect using one of the three local ISPs: Spectra Net, Spectra Solutions or AB Net). Given that UGC and Open University are planning to setup full Internet connectivity operations in the regions, there is a possibility of optimising resources by collaborating with these institutions. It is recommended that discussions for future collaboration be begun.

Recommendation 4:  bd Domain: Bangladesh does not still have its own top level national domain, bd. The domain has not yet been assigned by IANA apparently because there has been no consensus on the entity to manage this. In various discussions on this issue, it has been suggested that a consortium be formed in which each of the BD Internet "stakeholders" have an opportunity for input in the decisions on management of the BD domain. Stakeholders are ideally viewed as government, industry, and academic representatives, which SDNP does have in the form of its Steering Committee. This issue should immediately be raised once again in live ISP Forum and other bodies to check whether there could be consensus around SDNP. Should this happen, the hardware requirements etc. would change (as would the sustainability options). In 1997 CISCO offered to provide the main routing equipment and, in collaboration with APDIP (http://www.apdip.net) the CISCO Academy offers training scholarships. Aminul Islam of UNDP has been actively involved in both of these discussions and might be the appropriate person to investigate these possibilities in collaboration with Prof. Jamilur Reza Chowdhury of BUET who has been selected as the chair of SDNP's Steering Committee.

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