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."
The Internet centers are being set up by GrameenPhone, a cellphone 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 cellphone network created over the past decade by a Grameen Bank program that helped provide more than 250,000 cellphones 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.Staying Connected
Goats grazed on litter outside Ambia's little Internet shop in Charkhai, where merchants sell bright red tomatoes and honking ducks in the crowded central market.
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 cellphone. 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.
Before Ambia's center opened in February, Aleya said, she would have called her uncle on a borrowed cellphone at a cost of more than $2, her husband's daily wage.
The only other option would have been to take a bumpy bus to Sylhet, a city about 20 miles down the road, to make the call from an Internet cafe there. She said rutted roads and ancient buses making frequent stops often turned that into an all-day errand that would cost her nearly $3.
As Aleya spoke on the phone, Komoruddin, 50, was waiting to make a call to his son, an electrician living in Saudi Arabia. Komoruddin said he and his other son and five daughters live largely on the money his son sends home.
"I used to have to make a plan and spend a whole day to make a call. Now I can just come in here and relax," he said. "I never thought I'd see anything like this here. Some people still don't believe it."Cyber Vows
Ambia, a lanky 26-year-old, said he was running a small shop doing cellphone repairs when he heard about GrameenPhone's plan to create hundreds of village Internet centers.
"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 cellphones 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.
Before, getting a passport application could take weeks, or would require a bus trip to Sylhet. News of overseas job opportunities used to come by word of mouth. But now people browse online employment bulletin boards, then use the center's scanner to submit completed applications for jobs that before they might never have known about.
Students cram into the two-room center to use computers to check results of their standardized exams, instead of walking miles or taking a bus ride to get them.
Ambia has created a database of land and houses for sale around Charkhai, which better-off Bangladeshis in London or the Middle East use to browse for investments in their homeland.
He is working on databases listing doctors and other basic services. He said a program would soon begin to 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."
One of Ambia's most popular services is video conferencing, using the little Hyundai Web camera mounted atop one of his computer monitors.
Entire families crowd in front of the center's camera to hold video conferences with relatives overseas. Ambia said a mother came in recently to hold up a newborn to give the father, working overseas, his first glimpse of his child.
"People even come here to see how things are being cooked in London, how they are cutting the fish," he said.
And Ambia was preparing to add a 21st-century twist to a traditional ritual, by hosting his first video conference wedding.
Aslam Ahmed, 25, said he planned to sit in front of the Web camera in Charkhai and marry his girlfriend, Jasmine, 17, who would be in front of a Web camera in her home in London.
Weddings conducted over the telephone are common in this part of Bangladesh. Many marriages are still arranged between conservative Muslim families, and often the bride or groom is living overseas.
A marriage certificate is also a fast route to getting a work visa to leave Bangladesh -- and conducting the wedding by phone is faster and cheaper than arranging for the overseas partner and family to travel home for a wedding.
An imam is present at both ends of the call, along with a civil official who certifies the vows. Duplicate sets of paperwork are then exchanged by mail for everyone's signatures.
Ahmed and his bride had planned a wedding by cellphone and knew they would have to pay $30 or $40 just for the call. The video conference over the Internet, however, would cost a fraction of that, so the imams conducting the ceremony would not have to rush through the prayers to save money.
Jasmine's family moved to London in 1986. Ahmed said he had met her just once, in 2002, when her family came back to Charkhai to visit. They spoke on the phone and exchanged e-mail regularly after that -- and once Ambia's center opened, they saw each other regularly by video conference, even though they live 5,000 miles apart.
"I don't know what other people say, but as far as I'm concerned she's Miss World," Ahmed said.