While the future of Saarc has become a topic of discussion, Dhaka has recently hosted two events: South Asian Telecommunication Regulatory Council Meeting, and the South Asia Economic Summit.
The first one, the 17th Meeting of the South Asian Telecommunication Regulatory Council (SATRC), is an official convention of the telecom regulators in the Saarc region. This time, a delegation from Iran joined it as well. Since its formation in 1997, SATRC has been actively addressing telecommunication-related regulatory issues and challenges of common concern to its members in collaboration with broader regional bodies like APT (Asia-Pacific Telecommunity).
The second event, 9th South Asia Economic Summit (SAES IX), was organised by five regional think tanks: CPD (Bangladesh), RIS (India), SAWTEE (Nepal), SPDI (Pakistan), and IPS (Sri Lanka). With the theme of “Reimagining South Asia in 2030,” this program aimed to provide a boost to the ongoing efforts for strengthening regional cooperation among South Asian countries.
Although the subject and modality of these two events are different, a common message seems to be carried by both: In the current global context, there is no alternative of continuing and utilising regional co-operation from relevant perspectives. Saarc currently has six APEX and 18 recognised bodies. While the supreme summit may remain stuck due to state-level issues, these bodies, along with other forums, can play a key role to continue the regional collaboration in respective arena.
Particularly, there are certain aspects where joint approach is inevitable. ICT is one of them. For example, if we go to Banglabandha Zero Point at Tetulia in Panchagarh, which is the northernmost point of Bangladesh, we shall see a board mentioning “End of Bangladesh Border.”
However, if we just take out our cell phones and search for available networks, we may find network coverage of several telecom operators from both India and Bangladesh.
Such is the strength and beauty of communication technology -- it can easily cross geographical boundaries.
In this arena, there are numerous wings of collaboration. Let us consider internet connectivity.
On a broad level, there are two possible mechanisms for a country to get connected to the ocean of the internet -- through satellite, or through cable. Due to cost, coverage, and capacity issues, use of satellite-based internet connectivity (such as VSAT) is quite limited.
It is generally used for segmented purposes, in very remote or isolated locations where terrestrial connectivity is not possible, or as an emergency backup for the main connectivity.
Landlocked countries need to use the nearest cable landing station of neighbouring countries. This provides a big scope for regional collaboration
So, the majority of internet traffic between countries or continents pass over cables; to be more specific, through a vast network of undersea cables known as a submarine cable network.
Cable landing stations in certain coastal cities act as the connectivity hub for this submarine cable network. Currently in the South Asian region, cable landing locations are located in Cox’s Bazar, Colombo, Karachi, Mumbai, Chennai along with Cochin, Tuticorin, and Digha in India.
These landing stations pass the internet traffic of the respective country along with other countries. The concept is quite similar to sea ports which can serve as the export-import centres for multiple countries. Particularly, landlocked countries (such as Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan) need to use the nearest cable landing station of neighbouring countries. This provides a big scope for regional collaboration. Recently, Bangladesh has decided to export bandwidth to neighbouring countries.
Bandwidth export to the Indian state of Tripura was launched on March 23, 2016 through a video conference by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.
Initially, a monthly revenue of $100,000 is being generated for exporting 10Gbps of bandwidth to Tripura, which may gradually expand up to 40Gbps. Other Indian states in the northeast also have bandwidth requirements.
The same thing applies for Bhutan (where bandwidth export is planned to start soon) and after Bhutan, Bangladesh may seek to export bandwidth to Nepal as well.
As a second submarine cable landing station is being deployed in Kuakata, and exploration has been going on for back-up internet connectivity through Myanmar, huge potential lies for Bangladesh in this arena.
Currently, the second path of our internet connectivity is through India (towards the landing stations in Mumbai and Chennai) via International Terrestrial Cable (ITC).
Let us look at another possible aspect of alliance. When anyone from Bangladesh travels to neighbouring countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, or vice-versa, there is less probability that they will use a roaming SIM for communication due to extremely high roaming tariffs.
Traditionally, roaming tariffs have been significantly high in most parts of the world due to certain factors, including complex connectivity path of roaming traffic, and revenue sharing modality between multiple parties (home operator, visited operator, and middle carrier).
Still, the level of roaming tariff (percentage increase of hundred or thousand times with comparison to usual local tariff) is not justified in most cases.
This issue can be best addressed through regional alignment. Roaming regulations of EU can be the best example in this regard. It strictly enforces the maximum roaming charges allowable across the EU countries, and targets to completely abolish end-user roaming charges by June 2017.
Obviously, Saarc cannot be comparable with EU which is one of the strongest regional forums, having a very strong and consolidated framework. Still, some collaborative approach can be sought among the South Asian countries to regulate the roaming tariffs while ensuring the interest of both users and operators.
While lack of formal alignment or procedural obligation may remain as bottleneck for regional co-operation in various sectors, ICT is one arena where collaboration may proceed through the drive of mass people, irrespective of such dependencies.
Just as an example, the demand for broadcasting Bangladeshi TV channels in India has been a long-lasting issue. However, even if a particular Bangladeshi channel is not being broadcast in India, anyone there can now watch it through live online streaming.
So the best possible outcome can be ensured if the countries utilise such progressive flow through a collaborative approach for the betterment of this region.
Azfar Adib is a telecom professional and internet service analyst.