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20 June 2013

Mobile use in Bangladesh hits a major milestone

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The rapid growth of cell phone use in the impoverished South Asian nation has a significant impact on the economy, as well as on people's lifestyles.

By K.R. Chowdhury

Dhaka: This May, Bangladesh became the latest nation with at least 100 million active cell phone users – a milestone reached so far by only 12 countries in the world.

Just two decades ago, even land lines were difficult to obtain – let alone mobile phones -- and were considered a sign of wealth and prestige. Today people from all social strata use cell phones, from street vendors to business executives in luxury cars, and from villagers to urbanites.

The transformation is due in large part to Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, who started his GrameenPhone venture in 1997, vowing to reach every strata of the society with cell phone service.

"Now, we have more than 100 million active SIM users. This is an historic event," Sunil Kanti Bose, chairman of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), told Khabar South Asia.


Bangladesh has now joined South Asian neighbours India (862m) and Pakistan (122m) on the list of countries with 100m or more mobile phone users. The others are China (one billion users), Russia, Brazil, the United States, Indonesia, Japan, Germany, the Philippines and Nigeria.

Cutting the cord

Many Bangladeshis have unpleasant memories of the landline era, when the state-owned Telephone and Telegraph (T&T) Board had a monopoly in all connections. Complaints about corruption were widespread. Even ordinary linemen – the lowest-level technicians – found ways to gouge consumers, often becoming wealthy in the process.

Anyone wanting a landline had to get T&T approval, and sometimes even government ministers had their requests turned down. "Before 1996, owning a land phone was a matter of prestige," explains Monowar Hossain, a former customer who recently turned in his land phone, deeming it "useless".

All his family members and even the maid servant now use mobile phones, he added.

Mohammad Raihan, a rickshaw-puller in Dhaka's Mirpur neighbourhood, says the technology has transformed the life of his family.

"I can easily talk to my wife and children back home in Dinajpur whenever I want. I send them money with the mobile (phone) with little cost," he told Khabar.

Biplob Rahman, a student at Dhaka's Tejgaon College, uses the phone for entertainment as well as staying in touch with friends.

"Mobile phones have created a revolution. I can listen to songs and watch movies in addition to maintaining contacts through social media such as Facebook," he said.

Analysts point to the economic boon created by the growth of cell phone use. "The mobile phone has brought economic activities to the urban and the rural areas alike," Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies Senior Research Fellow Nazneen Ahmed told Khabar.

"Now, a producer in the remotest area can directly contact the sellers without middlemen," she said. "Even producers can easily get the market price before they sell."

Introduction of 3G bandwidth services will further encourage such trends, according to Abu Sayeed Khan, a telecom consultant.

"More internet bandwidth will create huge opportunities for our burgeoning outsourcing sector, creating more job opportunities in Bangladesh," he told Khabar.

GrameenPhone, now a subsidiary of Norway's Telenor, remains the largest provider in Bangladesh, with 42% of users. It competes with Banglalink, a subsidiary of Egypt's Orasmcom; Malaysia's Robi; India's Airtel; state-owned Teletalk; and Citycell.

(Courtesy: Khabar South Asia)

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