Proof of it is that people have been able to work remotely without much problem during the global coronavirus pandemic

Soon after winning the national election in 2008, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina unveiled her vision for a Digital Bangladesh by 2021, leveraging the power of technology to enhance people’s lives.

Its cornerstone was the promise of delivering citizen services by way to technology.

Saturday marked eleven years since that proclamation was made.

“Now, a digital Bangladesh is visible to the world,” Mustafa Jabbar, the posts, telecommunications and information technology minister told Dhaka Tribune.

And the proof of it is that people have been able to work remotely without much problem during the global coronavirus pandemic.

“This is a great achievement as Bangladesh was known as the country of plough and yoke. But we have now entered the fourth industrial revolution. So the transformation has been immense.”

He went on to cite the speed of the internet as a case in point. 

“In 2008, we used 8 gigabytes per second (Gbps) bandwidth and now we use 2000 Gbps bandwidth. It’s outstanding.” 

Then another great success in the field of digitalisation is the mobile financial service, introduced nearly a decade ago, which has brought the swathes of the unbanked population under a formal banking channel. 

“There is no one in the world who can compete with us in this sector. The service in this sector is world-class.”

As of October, which is the most recent data released by the Bangladesh Bank, transactions through the platform stood at Tk 53,258.8 crore, the second-highest since the service was rolled out.

It came in particularly handy during the pandemic, allowing for salary disbursement, utility bill payment, merchant payment and money transfer – digitally.

As of October, a total of 9.6 crore people had an MFS account.

In reality, the progress made on the digital Bangladesh agenda can at best be termed mixed.

So far, more than 600 services have been digitised and 5,865 digital centres have been set up in the country, which has served 46 crore people over the decade. 

While the remote Maheshkhali island has been brought under internet connectivity, 19 per cent of the 4,553 unions do not have broadband internet connectivity yet. 

As of October, there are 16.4 crore mobile subscribers and about 10 crore internet users. 

The government has rolled out 3G and 4G network over the decade and is now working on the 5G launch by 2021. 

Whether that timeline can be met remains in doubt as the mobile operators are yet to start their preparations.

With the expansion of fixed broadband and the introduction of 4G mobile network services, bandwidth usage in the country has increased 94 per cent in two years. In 2016, the usage was 300 gigabytes per second (Gbps), which increased to 970 Gbps in 2018. 

There are now two submarine cables landing in Bangladesh, with a third on the way, said Zakir Hossain Khan, deputy director of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.

To keep all information under one umbrella, the Access to Information programme is implementing the world’s largest government web portal called the ‘National Information Window’ in collaboration with all departments under the supervision of the cabinet.

A total of 47,500 government websites are connected to the national information window. 

In the government, 18,434 government offices, including 8 ministries/departments/institutions, 227 government offices and 64 Deputy Commissioner’s office have been brought under the integrated network. 

The digitisation of e-consignment and savings certificate management has been established, while getting a passport and a taxpayer’s identification number can now be done online.

Under a project styled Modernisation of Rural and Urban Lives in Bangladesh through ICT, digital hubs and e-agriculture are being introduced in 500 villages. It will be introduced in each village in phases as well.

Some services though are digital only on paper such as the tax administration. 

“The system was yet not implemented properly because of discontent among the officials of the National Board of Revenue,” Jabbar said.

A similar problem can be found with the national ID card database due to the shift to the smart card. “There are complications to resolve. It’s a huge work.”

Some of the state-owned banks are yet to become digitalised and are still operating on paperwork. The minister said it will take some time for the lenders to enter the digital infrastructure.

The education and agriculture sectors are yet to get the digital treatment.

The libraries, schools and colleges need to be digitalised, he said.

“There are 58 ministries, this is a big government. It is not easy to make this big government digitalised so easily.”

Initially, the administration did not know which service should be given the propriety for digitalisation.

“After shortlisting the services, tendering them is a big process, so it is taking time. We just entered the digital world — it is the beginning, like a sunrise. We have a lot of work to do.”

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