Internet Extends Reach Of Bangladeshi Villagers

Mahbubul Ambia, who started an Internet center in the town of Charkhai, has helped customers find doctors, make Internet phone calls  and communicate by video conference.
Mahbubul Ambia, who started an Internet center in the town of Charkhai, has helped customers find doctors, make Internet phone calls and communicate by video conference. (Kevin Sullivan - Twp)

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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

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 cellphone, 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.

Villages in one of the world's poorest countries, long isolated by distance and deprivation, are getting their first Internet access, all connected over cellphones. And in the process, millions of people who have no land-line telephones, 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.

Cellphones have become a new bridge across the digital divide between the world's rich and poor, as innovators use the explosive growth of cellphone networks to connect people to the Internet.

Bangladesh now has about 16 million cellphone 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 cellphone networks.

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."


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