Internet becomes affordable in Bangladesh

Twenty million villagers in Bangladesh are set to gain access to the Internet thanks to a joint initiative from mobile operator GrameenPhone.

Other partners include the GSM Association (GSMA) and several local entrepreneurs recognising the potential of this development. GrameenPhone is now rolling out Community Information Centres across rural Bangladesh, giving up to 20 million people the chance to use the Internet and email for the first time. This is the follow-up to a successful pilot conducted with the GSM Association's Development Fund, and involves GrameenPhone teaming up with local entrepreneurs to establish around 500 centres in communities throughout the country by the end of this year.

Local entrepreneurs will run each of the centres, the latter containing personal computers connected to GrameenPhone's existing GSM mobile network. This latter has in turn been upgraded with EDGE technology to offer data transfer speeds of up to 128 kb/s. The centres will be located in each Upazilla, or sub-district, of Bangladesh so that they will each be within reach of up to 15 villages containing up to 40,000 people.

"GrameenPhone's use of GSM technology has placed Bangladesh in the vanguard of our global push to use mobile networks to bring affordable Internet access and email to the billions of people in the developing world that aren't served by fixed networks," declares Rob Conway, CEO of the GSM Association. "Through the GSMA's Development Fund, we are encouraging other mobile operators to follow GrameenPhone's lead and rollout similar services that offer shared access to the Internet."

The computers in the centres covered to date are used by an average of 30 people a day, who pay a small fee to access email or Web pages. Bangladeshis use the centres for a wide variety of business and personal purposes, from accessing health and agricultural information to using government services to video conferencing with relatives overseas. GrameenPhone trains the entrepreneurs so that they can give people advice on how to set up an email account and best make use of the Internet.

"The pilot project demonstrated that there is considerable pent-up demand for Internet access in rural Bangladesh and that mobile networks are the best way to meet that demand," believes Erik Aas, CEO of GrameenPhone. "Our Community Information Centres make the Internet affordable for ordinary Bangladeshis, while providing a robust revenue stream for local entrepreneurs. We believe widespread access to the Internet will have a profound effect on the social and economic development of Bangladesh."

To help the entrepreneurs keep the cost of Internet access as low as possible, the Community Information Centres also provide local people with other GrameenPhone services, such as payphones (again using GrameenPhone's mobile network) and electronic recharges for prepaid mobile accounts.

* GrameenPhone Ltd is the largest telecommunications service provider in Bangladesh with more than 9.5 million mobile phone users as of September 2006. The Norwegian communications company Telenor ASA is the majority shareholder (62%) while Grameen Telecom (38%) of Bangladesh is the other shareholder. GrameenPhone already runs the Village Phone Programme under which universal access to telecommunications services are provided in rural areas to people who cannot afford to buy a regular subscription. This programme also offers the Village Phone operators, mostly poor village women, a good income-earning opportunity. Presently, there are more than 255,000 Village Phones in operation in 55,000 villages around Bangladesh. The scheme has been replicated in some other countries, including Uganda and Rwanda.

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