Bangladesh government has issued three submarine cable licenses to Summit Communications, CdNet Communications and Metacore Subcom Ltd. Last bastion of state-owned monopoly in telecoms will fall once the private cables emerge from the Bay of Bengal. But tiptoeing the notoriously unassuming regulatory minefield at the shore will dictate their fate of Darwinian survival.

Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company (BSCCL) plugged the country’s maiden undersea cable (SeaMeWE-4) in 2005. Eleven years later, in 2016, the state-owned BSCCL pulled ashore its second (SeaMeWE-5) cable. The third one (SeaMeWe-6) is scheduled for activation in 2025.

Guidelines for private sector submarine cable license was published in 2011. But the government remained idle thereafter. As a result, Bangladesh became the only littoral country in South Asia and Southeast Asia that suffers from market abuse by the state-owned submarine cable monopoly.

A year later, in 2012, the authorities have issued six “International Terrestrial Cable” licenses to plug the country with uncompetitive India across land borders. Two years later another ITC license was given to the state-owned fixed-line telephone company.

Officially these ITCs were meant to be the backup of sole submarine cable (SeaMeWe-4) at that time. Actually, the government just extended BSCCL’s tyrannical monopoly in submarine cable. Nevertheless, the segregated licensing of undersea and overland optical fiber networks is ridiculous by any standard.

Optical fiber cable (OFC) is the common component in submarine and terrestrial networks. Submarine OFC traverse across the seabed to interlink the coasts of multiple countries. Thereafter the terrestrial OFC networks carry the submarine cables’ bandwidth towards hinterland for fueling the broadband networks.

Therefore, the seven ITC licenses that Bangladesh has issued, foolishly decouples the submarine from terrestrial OFC networks. All the 16 submarine cables linking Asia with Europe transit overland along both the banks of Egypt’s Suez Canal. This terrestrial segment plugs the undersea cable networks operating at the bottom of Red and Mediterranean Seas.

Eastern Thailand’s Songkhala and Satun at its western shore are the terrestrial transit points of three international submarine cables operating in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. The Jasuka cable, uniting Indonesia and Malaysia, also blends terrestrial and undersea routes. There are numerous examples of such integrated suboceanic and overland networks worldwide.

Therefore, Bangladesh government should have allowed the seven ITC operators to run submarine cable systems long time ago. Authorities have now issued submarine cable licenses to three companies instead. One of them, Summit Communication, is an ITC operator. And that is quite unsettling due to the government’s fragmented and unscientific policies.

Summit has a Nationwide Telecommunication Transmission Network (NTTN) license for transporting international bandwidth to and from the domestic wholesale outlets called International Internet Gateway (IIG). Summit also has an IIG license. Then it offloads the bandwidth among mobile towers by virtue of its NTTN and Tower licenses. Summit additionally operates a peering outfit to keep the local traffic within the country through a National Internet Exchange (NIX) license.

In sum, Summit uniquely controls the entire supply chain of broadband in Bangladesh.

One may wonder how it could happen. The answer is: telecoms policy of Bangladesh first dismembered the broadband supply chain and made broken pieces of licenses in 2007. Then the NTTN license was created in 2009, which subsequently prohibited the cash-rich mobile operators’ investments in optical fiber in 2011. Such progressively absurd regulations to block capital injection in rapidly evolving telecoms infrastructure is shockingly unique in the world.

Nevertheless, the cash-strapped local investors have thronged into the garage sale of disjointed infrastructure licenses and they have predictably failed to deliver.

The 95% of 148,000 square kilometers territory of Bangladesh is deltaic flat terrain. Whereas only 20% towers are fiberized in this 184 million-plus mobile subscribers market. Because the regulator formally allows to lease dark fiber but informally embargos to lit it. This is the Exhibit-A of completely dysfunctional telecoms policy. Bangladesh ranking 103 among 110 countries in Surfshark’s mobile internet speed index is the Exhibit-B. The list is long.

Licensing obligation of deploying three private submarine cables by 2024 amidst regulatory uncertainties of Bangladesh is challenging, if not unrealistic. Looming geopolitical storm accompanied by global financial uncertainties coupled with the exposure to unpredictable and informal regulations inhibit bona fide investors.

Unceremonious ejection of Singapore’s SingTel and dramatic exit of India’s Airtel from the mobile market followed by stunning reduction of Japanese NTT Docomo’s stake in Robi Axiata have sent a series of cautionary signals. Massive overhauling of the country’s telecoms regulatory governance is the only way to restore the investors’ confidence. And there is no shortcut to it.


About the Author

Abu Saeed Khan is the Senior Policy Fellow at LIRNEasia