Internet extends a lifeline to villagers in Bangladesh

CHARKHAI, BANGLADESH — The village doctor’s diagnosis was dire: Marium needed immediate surgery to replace two heart valves.The 28-year-old mother of three said she was confused and terrified. She could barely imagine open-heart surgery. She had no idea how her family of farm laborers could pay for an operation that would cost $4,000.The next day, Sept. 16, her father went to see Mahbubul Ambia, who had recently installed the only Internet connection for 20 miles in far northeastern Bangladesh. Ambia sat down at a computer, connected to the Internet by a cable plugged into his cell phone, and searched for cardiac specialists in Dhaka, the capital, 140 miles away. He found one and made an appointment for Marium, who like many people here goes by just one name.

The specialist examined her and said she needed only a routine surgical procedure that cost $500.

“I felt a very deep sense of relief,” Marium said.

Poverty and isolation

Villages in one of the world’s poorest countries, long isolated by distance, are getting their first Internet access, all connected over cell phones. And in the process, millions of people who have no land-line phones, and often lack electricity and running water, in recent months have gained access to services considered basic in richer countries: weather reports, e-mail, even a doctor’s second opinion.Cell phones have become a new bridge across the digital divide between the world’s rich and poor, as innovators use the explosive growth of cell phone networks to connect people to the Internet.

Bangladesh now has about 16 million cell phone subscribers — and 2 million new users each month — compared with just 1 million land-line phones to serve a population of nearly 150 million people.

Since February, Internet centers have opened in well over 100 Bangladeshi villages, and a total of 500 are scheduled to be open by the end of the year. All of them are in places where there are no land lines and the connections will be made exclusively over cell phone networks.

Explosive growth

Before February, analysts said, only 370,000 Bangladeshis had access to the Internet. But now millions of villagers have access to information and services that had been available only by walking or taking long and expensive bus rides, or were beyond their reach altogether.People now download job applications and music, see school exam results, check news and crop prices, make inexpensive Internet phone calls or use Web cameras to see relatives. Students from villages with few books now have access to online dictionaries and encyclopedias.

“We could not imagine where this technology has taken us in such a short time,” said Mufizur Rahman, 48, a grocery shop owner in Charkhai, a town of about 40,000 people whose streets are filled with colorful three-wheeled bicycle rickshaws, and where there are almost no cars.

“For the First World, this is minor,” he said. “But this is a big thing for us.”

The Internet centers are being set up by GrameenPhone, a cell phone provider partly owned by the Grameen Bank, which shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with its founder, Muhammad Yunus.

The centers are building on a cell phone network created over the past decade by a Grameen Bank program that helped provide more than 250,000 cell phones in villages. When that program started in 1997, only 1.5 percent of the population had access to a telephone; that has risen to more than 10 percent.

Goats foraged outside Ambia’s little Internet shop in Charkhai, where merchants sell bright red tomatoes and honking ducks in the crowded central market.

Densely populated

Bangladesh, where the United Nations says average annual income is about $440, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with its 150 million people crammed into an area roughly the size of Iowa.Ambia’s shop sits wedged between a stall where men sell huge sacks of rice and one selling cheap plastic shoes. By midmorning on a steamy September day, at least 20 people stood in line waiting to use one of Ambia’s two Chinese-made computers.

A woman named Aleya, 55, sat down on a small plastic chair and handed Ambia a scrap of paper with a London phone number. She said that her 18-year-old daughter was getting married and that she was calling her uncle in England to ask him to help pay for it. Aleya said her husband is a construction worker who earns about $70 a month, barely enough to feed their five children.

Ambia dialed the number on the keyboard of his computer, connected by a cable to a Motorola cell phone. The call connected using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology, which allows calls to be placed from a computer to another computer or a telephone anywhere in the world — for little or no cost.

VoIP technology is growing rapidly. One of the biggest brands, Skype, was founded in August 2003 and now has 136 million registered users. Companies such as Vonage and Yahoo also offer the service and are expanding exponentially.

Aleya picked up the small telephone handset connected to the computer and her face lit up. Her uncle, who owns a restaurant in London, promised that he’d make arrangements to send money for the wedding.

The five-minute call cost 8 Bangladeshi taka, about 11 cents.

“An 8-taka call has earned me thousands,” Aleya said with a broad smile.

Ambia, 26, said he was running a small shop doing cell phone repairs when he heard about GrameenPhone’s plan to create hundreds of village Internet centers.

Browsing and business

“I love browsing the Internet, but I used to have to go to Sylhet to do it,” he said. “When I saw the opportunity to combine browsing and business, I took it.”He said his business is growing fast, fueled by villagers’ delight at being able to connect with a world beyond theirs. Ambia also sells cell phones in his shop, and each month he signs up about 500 new customers, who pay about $4 to activate a phone.

Ambia said Internet access is a logical next step in Charkhai’s digital evolution. In recent months, he noted, local people have been making long walks through the fields and crossing wide rivers to log into cyberspace.

News of overseas job opportunities used to come by word of mouth. But now people browse online bulletin boards, then use the center’s scanner to submit completed applications for jobs.

Ambia said a program would soon allow local doctors and their patients to hold video conferences to consult with specialists in Dhaka.

“People are just beginning to know about this,” he said. “They are excited to get this kind of information.”

Nov. 23, 2006, 12:18AM

Washington Post


2 responses to “Internet extends a lifeline to villagers in Bangladesh

  1. Alhamdulillah, bangladesh and especially bangladeshi villagers have been in the dark too long. This is great news for bangladeshis both in bangladesh and abroad.

    my friend in sylhet used to have to visit cyber caf’es to do his online browsing. He studies in the town so it was easy, but when he went home for holidays it was hard work to get online.

    but recently he was given a laptop by a relative and now he gets online via his mobile. so he can browse no matter where he is. And the best thing is, they can now keep track of what is happening in the rest of the world. fi amanillah!

  2. Yes, this is surely a good news for Bangladesh. Right now we have more, in our rural area some NGOs have started TeleCentre Movement (see NGOs like D-Net Bangladesh, Relief International along with others are establishing centers in rural are with the facility Internet, Phone/Mobile, Printer, Digital Camera, Web Cam etc to provide the access to the Information. Even GrameenPhone have launched their CIC (Community Information Center) to setup a commercial cybercafe to the rural area with their GPRS Internet Facility. CIC is GP’s Brand CyberCafe.

    So the opportunities are openning to our rural people. For our eduBangla (see for details) project we will use those facilities to reach to the people in villages, to remote area.

    Your suggestion and help is needed to implement this huge project for our beloved Bangladesh.

    Thanks Team

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