Thursday, May 24, 2012

SASEC Information Highway Project—A New Horizon in Subregional Cooperation

Shyama Prasad Bepari[1]                                                                    
Targhibul Islam[2]


South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) Information Highway Project aims for cross- border optical fibre connectivity among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. The project was initiated with Asian Development Bank (ADB)’s assistance following the SASEC ICT Working Group meeting decision in 2006. Bangladesh government signed a loan agreement with ADB on 15 March 2009 to finance the SASEC Information Highway Project (Bangladesh Component). The project has three components: 1) SASEC Regional Network: An optical fibre network across Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal will be built to exchange internet and voice traffic among the four countries and beyond. Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited (BTCL) will build and maintain the network in Bangladesh. 2) SASEC Village Network: 25 (twenty five) community electronic centres (CeCs) will established in rural Bangladesh. The CeCs will be connected to the regional network. 3) SASEC Research and Training Network: Capacity building of four institutes from the four SASEC countries will be done to facilitate ICT research and training with a special focus on community ICT centres in rural areas. Bangladesh Computer Council (BCC) has been selected as the RTN institute from Bangladesh. The four RTN institutes of four countries will be connected to each other through the regional network.
The first two components are financed by ADB loan and GoB fund while the third component will be financed through piggybacked Technical Assistance (TA) fund from ADB. The ADB loan amount for the Bangladesh component is US$ 3.1m and GoB fund is BDT 895.95 lakh. The TA amount is US$ 4.4m for the four SASEC countries. 
This article discusses about the Regional Network component of SASEC Information Highway Project.

Regional Vs Subregional Cooperation

Regional cooperation is not a new concept. ASEAN, SAARC and ECO are examples of the forums for regional cooperation in Asia. However, regional forums sometimes become not much effective in terms of cooperation in real sense due to geographical distance and/or political divide. For example, the first SAARC Communications Ministers Conference held in Colombo in 1998, adopted the Plan of Action on Telecommunications in the region. The Plan of Action calls for a reduction in telecommunication tariffs within the SAARC region, special rates for transiting regional traffic, cellular roaming, liberalized leased lines and human resources development. However, no appreciable progress has been made on these important issues till date. Subregional cooperation, on the other hand, involves a group countries in geographical proximity with common or nearby international borders. Slow multilateral and regional processes help to spur subregional cooperation, which is more effective in dealing with immediate problems. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal are close neighbours with potential for effective subregional cooperation in areas such as trade, energy, transport, environment and ICT. The mission of SASEC is “From poverty to growth—transforming challenges into opportunities”. The lead activity of the SASEC program is the identification, prioritization, and implementation of subregional projects involving four countries with support from development partners such as Asian Development Bank.        

SASEC ICT Program and Strategy

The SASEC ICT Working Group (ICTWG), comprising of secretaries of ministry of ICT of SASEC countries, agreed to develop SASEC ICT Development Master Plan (the Master Plan) at the first ICTWG meeting held in India in March 2004, to lay down the strategy, framework and priorities for SASEC ICT regional cooperation. The Master Plan, prepared with ADB assistance and accepted at the second SASEC ICTWG held in Bhutan in January 2006, formulated the SASEC regional ICT strategy in a way to coordinate and consolidate individual countries’ national leadership, vision, and strategies, and identified the following common areas: (i) global positioning of the SASEC subregion in ICT; (ii) regional opportunities for ICT professionals and local ICT industry development; (iii) skills training, accreditation and mutual recognition;  (iv) regional affordable broadband capacity, reliability, and quality; (v) investment, regional trade and employment; (vi) cross-border community participation and benefits; and (vii) contribution to the achievement of MDGs.
In all SASEC countries, there is a considerable recognition of the benefits of broadband capacity and a growing awareness of the issues and opportunities emerging from convergence. The regulatory environment for each SASEC member varies substantially but all members have recognized the need for independent regulatory authorities to oversee the opening up of ICT infrastructure to competition. The need to foster local ICT industry development has also been a common agenda. There are other considerations as well, including for example the structure and governance of the internet and the global positioning of the region. There is also a common recognition to the need for skills development at all levels, including on the one hand community e-literacy, and on the other hand accredited graduate qualifications. Further all SASEC members have identified extensive requirements for service applications, including for government services, such as e-education, e-health and e-culture as well as the potential for new governance structures to improve community participation. All members have also recognized the need for either new institutions or enhanced capacity and course offerings of existing training institutions. These common interests and policies define a broad scope for priority areas of collaboration and regional ICT development strategy in the Master Plan.
Among others, the Master Plan, along the regional ICT strategy, proposed three most urgent areas for improvements in ICT: (i) cross border connectivity, (ii) rural information access, and (iii) human resource capacity. At the third ICTWG meeting held in Dhaka in September 2006, in order to address such needs, the SASEC countries agreed to develop the concept of SASEC information highway which would deliver modern affordable and reliable broadband information, communication, and knowledge services within and across borders to business, and to the rural and remote communities. During the implementation of an ADB-approved project preparatory TA on SASEC information highway in 2007, the concept of SASEC information highway has been crystallized and related investment package has been formulated and agreed by the SASEC ICTWG. The SASEC Country Advisors’ Meeting held in June 2007 and participated by secretaries of ministry of finance of the SASEC countries also endorsed the concept, and thus further processing, of the SASEC information highway project.
Fig. 1 Schematic diagram of SASEC Regional Networkrk

Fig. 2 Geographical location of SASEC Information Highway

SASEC Regional Network (Bangladesh Component): Technical Design

The Bangladesh component of the SASEC Regional Network mainly consists of a core IP Router, four numbers of new multi service optical transmission nodes and a part of the existing transmission network of BTCL. The core router will be installed at Moghbazar, Dhaka and will function as the Gateway router for connecting other IP networks of Bangladesh and the other gateway routers of SASEC Regional Network to be installed at different places of India, Nepal and Bhutan. The core routers will be MPLS enabled and will have both PoS (STM-1/STM-4) and Ethernet (GE and FE) interfaces. Besides the core router, there will be an aggregation switch at Moghbazar. Also, there will be a NMS, a Bandwidth Management Gateway and Operation Support System (OSS) at Moghbazar for ease of operation and maintenance.
Core Router at Moghbazar will have the provision to connect the SASEC Community E-Centers      (CeCs) and SASEC Research & Training Network (RTN). These SASEC CeCs and SASEC RTN will be established as part of the SASEC project.
For transportation of IP traffic between Panchagarh and Dhaka, and between Panchagarh and Shiliguri, two numbers of Multi Service optical transmission equipment (MSPP) will be required, one for Panchagarh and the other for Thakurgaon. To provision an alternate path for the IP traffic between Dhaka router and the Shiliguri Router of the SASEC Regional network two additional MSPP will be required, one of which will be installed at Chuadanga and the other at Meherpur. The initial capacity of these transmission equipments will be STM-16 but can easily be upgraded to STM-64 capacity. From Dhaka to Dinajpur and Dhaka to Kushtia, BTCL has optical transmission system of STM-16 or higher capacity. The existing optical transmission link of BTCL in Dinajpur-Thakurgaon-Panchagarh and Kushtia-Meherpur-Chuadanga routes are of STM-1 capacity. BTCL have enough fibers in the above mentioned routes. Hence, the STM-16 optical transmission equipment proposed for Thakurgaon, Panchagarh, Chuadanga and Meherpur will operate over the fibers of BTCL. For connecting the optical transmission equipment of Panchagarh to Shiliguri, India, around 56 km OF cable will be laid from Panchagarh BTCL station to Indian border at Banglabandha. There is optic fiber cable connectivity between Chuadanga and Kolkata which is operated by BTCL in Bangladesh and BSNL in India. There will be STM-1/STM-4 PoS and GE interfaces in the router to be installed at Dhaka to connect the routers at India, Nepal and Bhutan.  The transmission equipment at Thakurgaon will provide STM-16 connectivity for the Panchagarh transmission equipment and to the BTCL’s existing optical transmission equipment at Dinajpur. Similarly, the transmission equipment at Meherpur will provide STM-16 connectivity for the Chuadanga transmission equipment and to the BTCL’s existing optical transmission equipment at Kushtia.

Fig. 3 Technical diagram of SASEC Regional Network (Bangladesh Component)

Present status of SASEC Information Highway Project

a. Regional Network: Bilateral Interconnection Agreements under SASEC Information Highway project were signed by four SASEC countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) on 26 April, 2012 at ADB headquarters in Manila, Philippines. On behalf of Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited (BTCL), the service agency from Bangladesh, Mr. Asaduzzaman Chowdhury, company secretary of BTCL, signed the agreements. The Bangladesh delegation was headed by Mr. Shyama Prasad Bepari, Joint Secretary and Project Director, SASEC Information Highway Project, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology.
ADB gave concurrence to the Regional Network bidding document on 27 April, 2012 submitted by the SASEC project management unit. BCTL will invite the tender for this component in June, 2012. The expected date of completion of works for the Regional network is June, 2013.

b. Village Network: Out of 25 CeC locations, 15 locations have been selected for setting up CeCs. The rest 10 locations will be selected by June, 2012. The tender will be invited in two packages: first for 15 locations and the second for the rest 10 locations. The expected dates of floating tenders for the two packages are August and October, 2012 respectively. The expected date of completion of works for the Village Network is December, 2013.

c. Research and Training Network: This component is financed by TA from ADB. However, no TA agreement was signed with ERD for this component and therefore TA PP was not prepared by MoICT for this component. The issue was raised by the Bangladesh delegation in the bilateral interconnection agreement meeting (25-27 April, 2012) in Manila.  ADB representatives present in the meeting told that ADB will initiate necessary communication with ERD, Ministry of Finance to streamline this TA component of SASEC Information Highway Project.
Signing of bilateral interconnection agreements among four SASEC countries at ADB Headquarters in Manila


SASEC Information Highway Project has ushered a new era in subregional cooperation among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. While SAARC could not deliver the results as expected, SASEC platform may be explored to expedite subregional cooperation in areas of energy, trade, transport, tourism, environment and ICT.  For example, hydro-energy in Nepal can be utilized for power generation through cooperation among SASEC countries for mutual benefit. Peace, stability and mutual trust are preconditions for successful subregional cooperation. The recently approved ‘Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2010-2021: Making Vision 2021 a Reality’ strongly emphasizes on positive steps relating to globalization and subregional cooperation. The governments of other three SASEC countries have similar stance on subregional cooperation. Against the backdrop of congenial political environment prevailing in the SASEC subregion, it is up to the bureaucrats and business leaders to take cooperation among the SASEC countries to a new height.  

[1] Joint Secretary and Project Director, SASEC Information Highway Project, Ministry of  ICT
[2] Divisional Engineer, BTCL and Project Manager,  SASEC Information Highway Project, Ministry of  ICT (

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