By Rashna Mahzabin
Digital Bangladesh movement started with vision 2021 in 2008. In the year-end of 2019, we look back at the progress report of this initiative so far.
Digital Bangladesh implies the broad use of computers and embodies the modern philosophy of effective and useful use of technology in terms of implementing the promises in education, health, job placement and poverty reduction. The philosophy of “Digital Bangladesh” comprises ensuring people’s democracy and human rights, transparency, accountability, establishing justice and ensuring the delivery of government services to the citizens of Bangladesh through maximum use of technology, with the ultimate goal being the overall improvement of the daily lifestyle of general people. This includes all classes of people and does not discriminate against people in terms of technology.
In the past few years, we have seen new waves of technology being a part and parcel of the daily days of our lives. From daily transport to being equipped with all the latest information needed, Bangladesh’s day to day lives from home to educational institutions to office, has changed immensely. Here are the key highlights of Digital Bangladesh so far:
Optical Fiber Connectivity
Optical fibre has been bought and installed in 930 unions by 2016. The target is to bring 2225 unions under optical fibre coverage by December 2020.
Bangladesh will soon sign up for the third submarine cable. Bangladesh was connected with the first undersea cable South East Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 4 (SEA-ME-WE 4) in 2006 and with the second one SEA-ME-WE 5 in 2017. State-run BSCCL currently maintains two submarine cable landing stations in Cox’s Bazar and Patuakhali —- having the combined capacity to offer 900gbps of bandwidth. Of the 900gbps bandwidth, BSCCL has rented out 680gbps bandwidth. BSCCL is exporting 10Gbps of IP Bandwidth to Tripura from since February 2016.
Our mindless scrolling on phone, sending voice notes all day to the friends chat groups, video calling family and friends anytime-anywhere has been a blessing of 4G. The current Internet speed in the boundary area level in Bangladesh is 2.1 Mbit/s. On 19 February 2018, Bangladesh started 4G internet network service. 5G is planned to be in our reach by 2023.
Tech innovation has changed our daily lives in a 360-degree angle. This wave of tech innovation started with mobile food delivery app and now transport, food, sending parcels, calling for cleanup, a good long body massage, getting groceries and medicines everything is just a click away from us. Tech innovation also gave rise to young entrepreneurs, new startups and new sectors of employment. With local software firms exporting to more than 40 countries across the world, it is evident that Bangladesh could soon emerge as a formidable player in the field of tech. It is even more encouraging to see that around 30 companies have become leading brands abroad, from neighbouring countries such as India, Bhutan, and Nepal, to further away in the US, the UK, and Japan, thereby adding to the momentum of Bangladesh’s rise to the top as a leading exporting nation. Such feats go to show the potential that the youth of this country possesses, and how, under the right set of circumstances, local companies can reach great heights and make headway into areas in which we previously lagged behind. This achievement would not have been possible without the government prioritizing ICT, and with 3,000 IT and software firms catering to an annual market size of Tk9,000 crore, it is only a matter of time before more and more of these firms make their presence felt international.
7th largest Data Center
A national data centre has been opened in Bangabandhu Tech City, Gazipur, which is the 7th largest ICT facility centre in the world in 2019. The construction of the National Data Centre began in 2016 on seven acres of land with a space of 2,00,000 square feet with Chinese financial and technical assistance. The centre by now has obtained a certificate from the USA’s Uptime Institute, an organization best known for its Tier standard and the associated certification of data centre compliance with standards.
Digital Judiciary System
The road to a truly Digital Bangladesh has not always been a smooth one, but it is good to see the government making the right investments in the right areas, and no sector is more important, and more in need of updating, than our judicial system. To that end, the government has undertaken large-scale plans to digitize our judiciary system in order to improve legal services for citizens. According to the Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Anisul Huq, an e-judiciary project has been undertaken by the ministry costing some Tk2,690 crore, and it aims to not only introduce a digital system to the judiciary, but to automate the administrative system and trial process, and establish e-courts.
Furthermore, judges, lawyers, and other officials concerned will be taught to adapt to the new system, there is no getting around the fact that more ICT knowledge is required across the board for the plan to work. It is important to recognize, however, that truly going digital is not just a matter of pouring money into projects or purchasing equipment with an initial burst of enthusiasm, success depends on a change in mindset, where officials and citizens alike understand the need to participate in a changed and upgraded system while discarding the old, less efficient ways of doing things. Technology is the bedrock of progress, and in order to improve services not just concerning judicial matters, but in other areas like health care, business, police services, and administrative matters, the digital way of doing things should be embraced.
The current generation in Bangladesh is growing up with smart devices and convenience services as a greater number of businesses seek to bring their products and services to the doorsteps of consumers. In finance, however, businesses are using smartphones and other devices to bring financial services as close as to the palm of our hands. Digital financial services (DFS) allow users access to services like banking and utility/merchant payments at their time and place of leisure instantly, and companies to save costs of servicing in person. However, beyond convenience, Digital Financial Services holds much greater potential – to promote greater financial inclusion in areas where financial institutions are scarce, combat fraud by ensuring payments to the right person and reduce costs associated with making a large number of financial transactions. Besides benefiting just consumers and businesses, it also has the potential to benefit the government through taxes as more financial transactions are made formal. It seems almost too good to be true, but the reality of this growing segment of fin-tech is that it’s changing the financial landscape of the world, especially in emerging countries like Bangladesh.
According to Findex, 78% of the world’s unbanked adults receive wages in cash and have access to mobile phones, giving the market high potential profitability. Companies dedicated to mobile-money such as Alipay and bKash already boast a user base of 520 and 30 million respectively. Although big players in the industry started initially with only mobile money services, there is a growing trend towards providing a wider variety of financial services including e-wallets, payment platforms, savings accounts, insurance, fixed deposit schemes and other services.
Despite the growth in the number of adults with a bank or mobile-money account in the world, growing by 515 million in the past 3 years, a quarter of all accounts worldwide remain inactive with no deposits or transactions in the last year. The bulk of profits earned by facilitating companies come from cash-in-cash-out and transactions. Mobile-money carries great potential for reducing the need for cash and making everyday payments easier. In Africa, its effects were much further reaching, where it was used as a tool for fighting corruption and providing emergency-response workers with their salaries while avoiding increased propagation of Ebola. Despite the reduction in the need for cash, it unlikely to be brought down to zero, as seen in Norway, which has the lowest cash usage still set at 17% of all payments despite being the world’s greatest adopter of digital financial services (DFS).
In developed countries the mobile money market is fragmented, but in emerging nations are dominated by few players like bKash in Bangladesh which holds 60% of the total, M-PESA holding 80% in Kenya, and China dominated collectively by Alipay and Tencent. In emerging countries, however, weak digital literacy among the population also means agents are part of the business model as middlemen to facilitate transactions. The interventions for promoting digital innovation in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) retail supply chain targeting retail micro-merchants are also crucial to drive growth and employment opportunities, particularly in the rural level. Around 1.3 million retail micro-merchants are the core part of our retail trade sector, transforming them as a last-mile digital payment and service access points will significantly contribute to building a stronger ecosystem for digital financial services, e-commerce and other digital services promoted by the government.
999 in Action
Emergencies do not come with a warning. In such events, doctors or law enforcement may not be around to help out. So, one must respond fast. That is why the Universal Emergency Number “911” was thought up by AT&T, which has been serving the Americans since 1968. The utility of this brilliant service gained recognition all over the world. It became very popular, because, prior to this line, callers had to know the phone numbers of each department to call in case of an emergency. In Bangladesh, such a concept was unfamiliar until the ICT division launched its pilot project in December 2017.
In association with the Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Fire Service, the Civil Defense Headquarters, and Department of Health, the government has introduced an emergency number “999.” This is our very own national emergency hotline, which promises to be by our side in times of immediate need. The best part about the service is that it is toll-free. So the next time you feel your life is under threat, or someone you know needs quick medical help, you can call the number even if you are out of phone credit. The trained agents of the 999 service will direct you to the police or an ambulance as you prefer. One must know when to call this number since it is not an ordinary service. Users of emergency numbers across the world believe that even if you are ever in doubt of whether a situation is an emergency or not, you should call the number. You must not hesitate to seek help in situations which require expert attention.
The country’s central bank, Bangladesh Bank, has been active in supporting and promoting banks to undertake digitalisation measures by establishing related departments, introducing supportive policies and guidelines. Backed by the initiative of the BB, banks of the country are now using core banking software, and have already automated several operations. Technology has already enabled most of the banks in Bangladesh to introduce digital products to their customers in the form of ATM/POST facility, Mobile/Telebanking, Web banking, ‘Anytime’ and ‘Anywhere’ banking, etc. BB has also brought notable improvements in digitising banks’ reporting system.
Banks are required to submit various reports to the central bank as part of their regular activity. Some of the reports are paper-based while some are paperless. Among them, Integrated Supervision System (ISS) is a web-based monitoring tool which integrates the existing multifold supervision mechanism of Bangladesh Bank. Not only the central bank but also the scheduled banks can use it for monitoring and supervising their branch offices. The introduction of ISS helped banks to ensure paperless and effective supervision. Bangladesh Bank introduced automated CIB service which provides credit-related information electronically to banks for prospective and existing borrowers. With this improved and efficient system, banks can ensure more effective credit risk management. It is essential for the banks to submit a number of reports to the regulator as part of their regular credit-related activities. Most of the reports are submitted either in online/softcopy format or in both hard copy and soft copy format.
BB has also brought about major changes in traditional reporting of trade services. From January 2013, BB has launched online reporting of all inward and outward remittances of authorised dealers (ADs). ADs are required to report transactions online which helps BB, the head office of banks, customs, NBR and different ministries to establish greater coordination in formulating policy and for running day-to-day operations. ADs are, therefore, required to report all types of their foreign exchange transactions on a daily basis through the web portal. Also, the central bank has instructed all banks to submit their exchange position through Rationalised Input Template (RIT) in web portal instead of emails. In order to monitor special FC account transactions, online special foreign currency account monitoring system is used. The introduction of Dashboard and online integration between customs and BB has brought major changes. Using technology and greater coordination are paying off the regulator and market players in terms of saving resources and time.
To ease the declaration procedure, BB has decided to introduce electronic option to submit EXP Form, with the flexibility of necessary amendments by exporters through Bangladesh Bank online reporting portal for export of goods prior to customs formalities. Accordingly, ADs are supposed to accept EXP Form submitted electronically by their customers, information of which will subsequently be available in customs electronic system. The initiative is helpful to reduce the paper-based documents. Bangladesh Bank contributed significantly towards facilitating paperless payment. One important development in the collection of cheques, handling transfer transactions, operations of the clearinghouse is the introduction of Bangladesh Automated Cheque Processing Systems (BACPS), Bangladesh Electronic Fund Transfer Network (BEFTN), National Payment Switch Bangladesh (NPSB) and Real-Time Gross Settlement (RTGS). The main objective of the initiative is to bring the whole country under a single clearing umbrella for ensuring secured and cost-effective inter-bank transactions electronically. The process not only reduces the processing time but also significantly reduces processing related documents. Regarding technology infrastructure for the digitisation of documents, there is no doubt that the banking sector as a whole has made notable improvements. Alongside multinational banks, some private commercial banks have installed updated technology infrastructure.
In Bangladesh, Core Banking Software has been playing a key role in running online banking business. It is helping banks to provide real-time online banking services to their customers through all branches. Customers’ touchpoints like ATM, POS terminal and internet banking give 24/7 banking facilities without using any paper-based documents. Use of Document Management System (DMS) by some banks has brought a revolution for capturing, archiving and sharing documents. Under this system, whenever a document enters into bank premises, it is captured into the system and linked with the application where it is required. Online reporting of the central bank improved the entire regulatory compliance frameworks. The technology transformation of the central bank and the banking industry has implications on the use of paper documents, cost and time involvement, and also on the efficiency of overall service delivery by banks. The green banking initiatives in the banking industry is also pushing for the adoption of environment-friendly technology and paper saving in banking operation and product delivery.
However, several banking operations, product processes, or certain segments of product processes are yet to be digitised. One important banking operation– credit-related activities needs to be further geared up towards digitisation. Some banks have made the process automated in an attempt to drastically reduce paper-based work. It is the need of the time to process credit-related documents electronically as much as possible. Digital transformation has the power to enhance performance and to correct various types of process lapses. It can also improve the core competence of banks and generate opportunities for profitable new business growth.
Bangladesh as the Top Four Countries in Digital Economy
Bangladesh is one of the top four countries in terms of ‘improvement and remarkable growth’ in the digital economy in the last four years, according to Huawei Global Connectivity Index (GCI) 2019. The index was prepared through evaluating the progress in the digital economy of the world where Ukraine, South Africa and Algeria are accompanying Bangladesh. The GCI report study was published by Huawei on digital development based on how ICT innovation and ICT applications can grow national economies and conducts open research into the digital economy with top universities, think tanks, and industry associations.