Excerpts from You Can Hear Me Now
|Preface: In the Hands of People|
|Chapter 1: Connectivity is Productivity|
|Chapter 3: Cell Phone as Cow|
|Chapter 7: Wildfire at the Bottom of the Pyramid|
|Chapter 8: Cell Phone as Wallet|
|Chapter 11: Eyeing the Dhaka Stock Exchange|
|Table of Contents / Index|
Travelers clearing customs at Dhaka International Airport in Bangladesh are greeted by three signs–one for Bangladeshi passport holders, one for foreign passport holders, and one for Foreign Investors. The first two lines are jammed and–there is no third line. Foreign investors aren’t exactly swarming one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
While I waited for my bags, I turned on my cellphone. In a few seconds it displayed the name of the local network operator, GrameenPhone. That was gratifying, because I had come to Bangladesh to visit Iqbal Quadir, who had spearheaded the design and development of GrameenPhone. I had heard so much about this mystical company in a land that was once virtually phone-free, it was reassuring to see how quickly the carrier popped up on my American phone. Reassuring and amazing–that you can travel from the richest country in the world to one of the poorest, from a country with one of the highest telephone penetration rates to one with one of the lowest, and use the same phone.
Arriving in the predawn hours after a long flight from London in January, 2005, I made no immediate link between the Foreign Investors sign and the GrameenPhone network connection, but of course there’s a clear one to be made: GrameenPhone would not have been possible without foreign investors.
In 1993, when Quadir first began thinking about ways to build a universal cellular network in Bangladesh, more than half of its 120 million people (now 152 million) lived on less than $1 a day. GDP per capita was $220. The adult literacy rate was 37%. Foreign direct investment (FDI) totaled a mere $3 million a year. Eighty percent of the country had no electricity. There was no Foreign Investors sign at the airport.
With a mere two phones for every 1,000 people, Bangladesh’s tele-poverty rivaled that of Nepal. Only the capital and largest city, Dhaka, and Chittagong, the second city, had phone service, to use the term loosely. If you knew the right people, you could get a phone in five years; if not, 10 was the norm. The completion rate on calls was around 20%, about what you’d expect from an Army field telephone in World War I. Taking a rickshaw ride through crowded streets to talk to someone in person, breathing the noxious exhaust of outboard motors powering the 3-wheeled “tuk-tuks” (they now run on natural gas), was a much more effective way to communicate than through phone. The saw in Dhaka was, First you get phone service, then you build your house around it. In 2005, a Dhaka newspaper ran the story of a man who just received a fixed-phone line after a 27-year wait. He was a young man when he applied, and now he’s 60.
“I’m not sure why it has taken so long to get my telephone connected,” Mohammed Ismail told BBC News. “I suppose it’s because I’m an ordinary customer who didn’t pay bribes.” That is Bangladesh in a nutshell.
There were, and are, positives. Bangladesh is democratic, even though its government is consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. Women are more modern than in any other Muslim country and the fertility rate dropped from 6.6 in 1975 to 3.1 in 2000. Many work (in the garment industry) and buck Muslim fashion constraints (no burkas). Two women have alternated as Prime Minister since 1991. (They are mortal enemies and defy each other’s efforts to lead, but that is a different problem.) The country has been relatively peaceful, compared to, say, Indonesia or Pakistan, except for occasional political murders and incessant hartals, or political strikes. Synchronized bombings across Bangladesh in 2005 and 2006 were a disconcerting signal that Islamic fundamentalists, who want to install Islamic law over the current British common law system, are now operating on the fringes, but they appear to have little traction. The country is rich in natural gas, exports are up to 14% of GDP,the economy has been growing at 5% or better for the last five years.
Bangladeshis are incredibly hard working. “How can people work so hard and be so poor?” one of my Bangladeshi guides asked me as we drove through the crowded streets of Dhaka and watched a whirlwind of commerce in wall-to-wall shops at 11 P.M. Good question, one that Quadir has been thinking about for years.