Democratizing Access to Internet: An Interview With Samiha Tahsin and Omran Jamal, Founders, Bonton Connect
Bonton Connect is a Dhaka-based technology startup that aims to democratize access to the internet by enabling peer-to-peer wifi sharing through a marketplace “where the general people can purchase and sell their home internet”. Bonton effectively brings the sharing economy to the world of the internet.
In this excellent interview, we sit down with Samiha Tahsin and Omran Jamal, Founders of Bonton Connect, to learn more about their path to entrepreneurship, what is Bonton Connect, how Bonton Connect came into being, how Bonton’s tech and business work. how Bonton operates as a company, Bonton’s state of business today and ambition going forward, and much more.
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Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us. Could you please tell us about your background?
Samiha Tahsin: I come from a creative background. I started with painting and eventually came to enjoy every art form. My path to entrepreneurship is directly connected to my work in art. I and my sister started a tiny initiative to help artists, who can’t promote their works due to various reasons, promote their artworks using a Facebook page. We wanted to help people. The artists we were working with did not have their audience either because they were too busy to market their works or they did not know how to do it. We thought if we could help them reach an audience, they would be able to make some money out of their artwork.
My path to programming follows a similar storyline. I was introduced to the world of programming a year before my University. After stepping into this new arena, I realized programming can help me work on my passion for helping more people. and I started exploring more. I founded an institution for teaching Computer Science for a while and then dived into the Tech Industry with Bonton.
Omran Jamal: I started doing programming from quite an early age. I have some background in art but I would not call that significant. Since I’m a programmer, I started working professionally from a young age using my programming skill. More recently, I worked for Jobike and Gaze.
Bonton is an idea I and Samiha had from before. Our personal experiences had a lot to do with how we eventually decided to pursue this idea. Before the pandemic, when we used to go to University, I could see our friends were quite reticent when it comes to using mobile data. After spending some time in a restaurant, they would quickly call an Uber and leave because they were reluctant to buy mobile internet.
We originally came with the idea in a similar setting. We were in this big restaurant where they had their WIFI but we could not connect because too many people were using it. We could not use mobile data either because mobile data was not available. We came to see several WIFI networks visible on our mobile from surrounding buildings. Samiha was like if we could connect with one wifi network from all these networks that would have solved our problem.
That prompted a discussion in that line. I shared with her how we share our WIFI password with our neighbors so that we could access each other’s connection in a moment of our connection failure. She is a businessman and was like that’s awesome and what if we could monetize that and expand all across Dhaka. Of course, we were exchanging passwords for free at our home because of good relationships between neighbors. She was like let’s take that all over Dhaka and change the world. That’s how all of it got started.
Samiha Tahsin: We started by doing a bit of research to understand how deep this problem is. We came to learn that unlimited access to the internet, which broadband enables, remains expensive for a lot of people. As a result, most people who use mobile data use it only for a few purposes such as communication and consumption of entertainment. We thought we could empower all these people to access unlimited internet and explore the power and possibility of the internet.
The initial research helped us to develop the business plan. We then moved on to build the initial product and so forth.
When and how did you get started?
We officially started working on it in November 2019.
What happened then?
Initially, one of the biggest challenges was technical. Mobile data works in a mechanism through tower handover and all that where you don’t need the internet to buy and start using mobile data. If users require the internet to buy and start using our internet, it would not make sense. Thus one of the biggest challenges was how to discover who are sharing wifi networks in your area while you are still offline. The second challenge was security. I guess everyone knows that if you connect to an open WiFi, there are security issues. Many people ask us how we solve this security challenge. Those were two of the biggest technical challenges.
Samiha is a math genius. She kind of solved part of the problem. We took off with it and kind of finished the basic algorithms. Once we somehow tackled the technical challenges, then began the business challenges.
Samiha: The first question people ask us from both the technical and business perspective is whether people will steal my password. People would not hack us, right? So on and so forth. There were a ton of security questions. These are some of the questions people asked us and continue to ask us even these days. Every time we have to make an effort to convince them that it is secure and your password and everything else is safe.
In November you came up with the idea and started working on it. But you needed resources and inputs such as you needed to put together a small team, you needed money, and so on. How did you put together all these resources and get started?
Samiha: We started pitching our idea to a few seniors we already knew in the industry. We had this mutual senior who wanted to invest. We eventually found our angels through. He liked our idea from the get-go. He was confident and eventually invested in us. After that, we put together a team and started working.
Did you have a prototype at the time?
Omran: I remember that prototype. One of his biggest concerns was that, in mobile data, when I walk from one place to another, what happens is a connection shift from one tower to another almost instantaneously. There is almost no lapse of time. As a result, I can use data without interruptions. We showed him through two Bonton apps that we could hop from one network to another faster than the mobile network. On mobile in 3G, it is about 6 seconds. We can do that in about 1.2 seconds. He was like you guys have this figured out.
Samiha: It gave him the confidence in our capacity to do it. He was like let’s do it.
Omran: Our pitch was not that good. He was not that confident about our pitch.
Samiha: But he was confident about our tech.
What happened after that?
Samiha: We raised our seed. Hired two of our engineers. And started building our product.
Omran: We onboarded our two advisers: for marketing and sales and technical and engineering management. We don’t come from an entrepreneurial background. So we have advisers who help us in figuring things out in sales and marketing and engineering management.
And then you started building the product? Could you tell us a bit more about the product? What is Bonton Connect? How do all bits and parts work? What I understand, it is more like a marketplace for wifi connections where some people share their wifi networks and others, users can choose a network and buy internet packages, etc. People share they get a cut of what users pay for the internet.
Omran: You are pretty close except we don’t allow users to choose a network instead we assign you a network. We like to describe ourselves more like Uber for the internet. You request the internet, we assign you a network, pricing, and everything just like an Uber car. The only difference so far is that our pricing is pretty constant.
You get connected to whichever network is uncongested around you. We had to develop a congestion detection algorithm for that. We have to make sure that the person who is sharing the internet doesn’t face any challenge because if he faces any challenge, he would not be sharing it. That’s how our app works in short and that’s all that a user has to know.
From the sharer perspective, their app is a little more complex. At this point, we have rolled back the sharing feature due to some complications in our business and sales. The way it works is simple: if you want to share, you open the app and say that I want to share my network and then we ask for the router’s admin password and take care of the rest. This is where one of Bonton comes.
Generally, we have two types of routers in the market. One is industrial-scale routers. These are quite advanced routers with features like remote management. We have off the shelf routers that we use in homes and offices that don’t come with these advanced features. Because these are home routers.
To enable sharing, we had to figure out how to manage these home routers remotely. We built a machine learning model that helps us to convert any off-the-shelf router into a smart router. That’s why we ask for the admin password and username for the router and turn it into a smart router. We then automate the router so that it can behave smart such as removing users who are not paying and ensure security such that people can’t attack each other using the same network, etc. We maintain all these things through our machine learning model.
That’s how our app sharing works. At the end of the month, whatever you earn you can cash out through bKash. Although bKash thing is waiting for the moment, that’s the plan. We are currently only working with broadband networks.
Initially, I thought security should not be an issue because you should have figured out since it is such a basic feature for making something like this work. But it now seems like a major issue.
Omran: The security myths that you hear these days such as people will steal your FB password or hack your phone and steal your photos, these used to be real challenges back in 2008 and 2009. There are no more challenges for users. WIFI infrastructure was a bit underdeveloped at the time. Hacking was much easier.
Half of the security problems we solve through automating the routers and enabling some security features. The other half of the problem is solved by the modern world. Any router where there is modern firmware, all the security features that you need to ensure the security of the person who is sharing are already there. We just need to turn it on.
The only problem is that regular people don’t know which feature to turn on and which to turn off. Our machine learning model takes care of that. Our machine learning model can tell which feature to turn on and which to turn off and how to block.
Specifically, no external user can access a machine from outside simply by taking advantage of the wifi network. It is similar to mobile data. When you are sharing mobile data no one can use that to browse your phone. That is the same for the computer and WIFIl.
How does pricing work?
Samiha: For a whole day we are charging 5 taka if you are using the same network or same location. If you are changing networks and moving, we are not charging any more than 10 taka. 80% of the charge goes to the person who is sharing the network and we keep a 20% commission.
Omran: We quantify the time, how much time you spent in which router, and slice up accordingly.
Since Bonton takes control of the router, is there a security risk for the person who is sharing? If I share the internet and you take control of my router, do I have control of it as well?
Omran: Definitely. As a sharer, you have control to use all your bandwidth yourself. In the app, there is a feature where you can kick out all the users and keep all the bandwidth for yourself. Even when you forget to tell us that you are going to watch a high bandwidth movie and you start watching it, our system detects and informs other users that you are using all the bandwidth and they should leave and find other networks to join.
If you want to change the settings of your router, you can do it as well. Although we change the password, we share it with you so that you can also manage your router.
How long does it take to switch to another network?
Omran: It is 1.2 seconds. It becomes a problem if there is only one network from which we could share a network. This is a challenge we are facing. We are working to build a critical mass in areas where we operate so that you never have a shortage of available connections. If there are enough connections, it is instantaneous.
How big is your team?
Omran: We are 9 people including our two advisers.
How are you doing in terms of business?
Omran: We had to pause our regular operation in the last few months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, we worked real hard on the technical side and pushed ahead with the development of some critical features.
We have resumed our operations now. Since everything has almost returned to normal, we can push for growth now. However, we are approaching it systematically. We have come to realize that if we push now it would cause two things to happen: one ISPS will not respond kindly because they don’t understand us. Two, users will not be responding that well either because they don’t understand us either. Consequently, we would not be reaching the critical mass that we need to make the service work.
If we don’t have a critical mass of users in a location, users would not find any benefit in our service. If we have more people sharing the internet than the users, it means they will eventually find it useless and leave our service because they would not be earning any significant money. On the other hand, if we have a lot of users but few sharers, it means we will be losing users eventually because they will have a bad experience in terms of finding consistent connections.
This is a challenge for all sharing economy businesses because you need to reach a certain threshold before you get to scale. That’s why we have rolled back some of the features although we have these systems built.
We have set up our routers in three places now. We have started working properly since last month after the lockdown is properly lifted. We now have about 2000 users. We want to grow but we want to do it systematically. We are currently allowing people to share around our three locations. The expectation is that slowly these circles will grow and then one day will become all over Dhaka and then the country and Asia.
ISPs could become a challenge because they could potentially lose revenue because of you. How are you dealing with it at this point and how do you plan to move ahead?
Omran: We are not registered as an ISP. Many parties, the government, and our payment processors would prefer us to have an ISP license. But since ISP business is territorial, our partners, I mean ISPs, would be uncomfortable working with us if we also operate as an ISP. That is why we are trying our best not to get an ISP license or to not be an ISP.
The perception that ISPs will be losing revenue is surprisingly not true. Many ISPs in the past months called us angrily asking why we are doing this and that this is not legal. Samiha is handling this. When we explain our services to them and how it may instead help their business they find it quite complimentary. Most household broadband connections don’t operate in full capacity because people are not always at home and using their broadband connections. It means these connections are often either sitting idle or running at a limited capacity most of the day.
When we explain this to the ISPs, a lot of ISPs who mostly give connections to households report that they often have a major surplus of bandwidth during day time. Many ISPs say that they have different speeds during the day and night, this is because of that. Now ISPs waste a lot of internet power.
When ISPs partner with us we will enable them to access these mobile data markets that they would never have been able to access before. ISPs will be the sellers in our platform. It is even more interesting for ISPs. If ISPs tell me that if you share your network, you will get discounts and so and so forth, I will share it, right? Through this process, ISPs can save costs in hardware and management and earn money from their unused capacities.
How do your marketing and sales work?
Samiha: We have come to realize that social media does not work that well for us. So we have been doing a bit of offline marketing such as banners and posters in areas where we are available, particularly where we have set up our routers and booths so that people notice when they are in one of our locations and understand that there is a wifi connection somewhere here.
Several big giants are entering this space. Google, Facebook, Elon Musk, everyone wants to bring the internet to more people and make it more affordable. How do you see these developments?
Omran: That’s a little scary.
Samiha: Google has launched a similar product from their Area 21 last month in the US. It is similar to what we are doing. When we first saw it, it was pretty scary. At the same time, it feels pretty good and validating as well. It validates our idea that we are doing something right. It was both exciting and nervous.
Omran: We have a big vision. We want to go big, if not the entire world, at least all over Asia.
4G coverage is pretty good in Bangladesh. However, broadband infrastructure is not that good and is not equally distributed. In areas where broadband is not there as yet and demand is not that high, no ISPs have the incentive to build the broadband infrastructure in those areas.
You could see this in rural areas where broadband is not widespread. ISPs would ask you for extra setup costs such as BDT 5000 because their setup cost is higher. Because they don’t have the infrastructure in that area. Now they don’t have infrastructure because there is a gap in the market and customers are not essentially looking for broadband networks. Why so, because probably customers are happy with the mobile data and so on because they could use FB for free and Whatsapp and other communication apps for free. But that’s no more the case. You can’t use FB or Whatsapp anymore. That is a major blow and customers are looking for better options. We use more internet because we have that option. If remote areas have options for more data they would have used it. Now when customers are willing to take broadband connections and there are some users, ISPs have incentives for building the lines. Part of our expansion plan is to collaborate with local ISPs and help expand broadband connections across the country using our investment. We are financing it but fiber companies will implement it. Then build the user base there. Because of how Bonton makes the internet accessible, now you have a user base and ISPs will enter the market on their own. We have a symbiotic relationship with ISPs.
Do you have IP rights or are you working on anything around patents?
Omran: We are going to apply for three patents. We are exploring it with our lawyers. We are looking into the first quarter next year for applying for a few patents.
What are the major challenges now?
Samiha: We still have to educate people a lot. Educating comes for both users and sharers. The first thing we are needing to do is educating the ISPs that this would help them and access a market that they could not access otherwise.
Omran: Since we are a new service, it is only natural that we would face resistance and fear. Anywhere we go we face resistance because people don’t understand our service. The resistance we face is the fear of the unknown. To deal with this, we have to educate people which means our brand position, our marketing, and sales strategy have to meet this need and get to a point where people trust us. That is the biggest challenge of the moment.
The other challenges would be onboarding a minimum critical mass in a certain location of both users and the sharers. Otherwise, our service does not work. Unless we have a critical mass in a location, we would not be able to satisfy either users or the sharers. After a while, both parties will feel disinterested. We have been able to take our technical aspect quite ahead, thanks to the pandemic. But these problems are really under development.
How are you dealing with some of these challenges?
Samiha: The first challenge is educating people. We are starting with telling our stories through posters and every other means that we have to build awareness. With the ISPs, we are going personally and talking to them and sharing about our service and how it could help their business and how we are not competing with ISPs. When we partner with ISPs, we get into agreements and when we partner with a new ISP in a location, we also inform the other partners in the same location.
For building the critical mass, we are starting sharing in areas where we have our Bonton Zones. So it is like we have a Zone in one location, we open sharing there and work hard to build a critical mass in that location. This helps because people already know about us and we will also send people notification that you can start sharing your wifi and earn through it. We have found out that people are interested in sharing once they come to know about us. We have received calls from interested people who want to share.
Omran: Our path is like: first we are making them users and then we are turning them into hosts or trying to convert them into hosts. Word of mouth is working pretty well for us compared to other marketing channels. If we can make one person trust, that person usually makes the next person trust when it comes to using. We are hoping that once we open the self-sharing, it will also spread through word of mouth. Otherwise, we have other things in the pipeline.
Why did you stop the self-sharing?
As I mentioned earlier, if we open self-sharing now, a lot of early adopters will signup but it would not essentially create the critical mass to keep the network working and growing. For example, if we open up and have a few users in Mohammadpur and then some in Uttara, it would not sustain the network because if there are not enough users, sharers would not make enough money to stay interested in it and if there are not enough sharers but a lot of users, users would not be able to access the network all the time. Both will eventually lead to users leaving our network. This is why we are not opening up the self share.
Instead, we are seeing where we have a lot of users. Once we have a ton of users in a location we know that it is a hot zone and then we open sharing in that particular area to grow our network just a little bit and then we expand gradually from there. This is why we have stopped self sharing.
We did open the sharing amid the pandemic to see the response and that’s exactly what happened. We had like 500 users and they were all over Dhaka and there was no constant network. It did not take us long to lose that 500 users. We ended up losing about 350 users from that.
Our current strategy is focusing on one area at a time. Our churn rate is surprisingly low. We are not losing users at all. We immediately see that this strategy works better.
How does your pricing work?
As a user, you have to recharge your account. You can recharge daily or you can recharge monthly and keep that in your account and pay on there daily basis.
Why do users churn?
Samiha: I called up some customers myself and what they told me is quite fascinating: most of them don’t understand the use of the app. Once they use the internet, they think that they no longer need the app and delete it. They think that we could connect to wifi without an app, so why should we keep the app. People who understood that the app-enabled them to use wifi kept the app but others did not understand that.
Omran: People need a Bonton network when they are not connected with the internet. What happens is that the initial networks that we have set up, our users get free internet for 10 minutes. The assumption is that using the internet who don’t have mobile data can download the Bonton app and then keep on using the internet using Bonton sharing. But many people think that since we already get the internet without the app, why to bother. We might get connected after a while.
This, however, is not available in all the locations. We are currently testing it out in Mohakhali. We will be doing it in the next few locations in the next few months. We are making it annoying so that people download our app. It sounds bad we are doing it intentionally. But that’s how it works.
What’s your take on weird internet packages and prices in Bangladesh?
Omran: We don’t want to comment on what’s happening in the mobile internet market. What happens with the internet is that everyone buys bandwidth which is megabyte per second or gigabyte per second. What we find weird is that after buying mega or gigabytes per second you are converting it into a specific size and selling that size or selling the package. That is what we want to change. The problem is not the package or volume, the problem is how much time I could use it for.
Samiha: People are getting online. But due to the internet price and everything, it has become predominantly for day to day communication. That is not good.
Omran: Our target is making sure that it is fair from the source to the end-users.
Could you please tell us about how people work and the culture at Bonton?
Samiha: Out of our four engineers three of them are students. Everyone in the team is mostly the same age. As a result, we are quite flexible as a team. We easily get each other’s points of view. We don’t have a strict hierarchy as yet. We work quite well together. We have the same mindset and it makes it easier to collaborate.
Omran: We all are the save the world type.
Samiha: Yes, we are all here to save the world. And help people.
What are some of the upsides and downsides of having a team of the same age group?
Samiha: Although we come from the same age bracket, we are pretty diverse. We are from different universities and backgrounds from across the country. We have people from Chattagram and Khulna. Since we are of almost the same age we easily understand each other and science we come from diverse backgrounds, we have a diversity of ideas as well. So I don’t see that many downsides.
One downside is that when we are speaking with investors, they are like you are students and are not working full time. We are like, well we are students and we work full time. It sometimes does not make a good first impression. That’s a big challenge.
Omran: However, this is improving. People understand that students often pursue other ventures like this and they are warming up to it. But there are still some discomforts among investors, particularly new ones.
There are many upsides of having people of the same mindset. One is there is no communication gap. Since we all are of coherent culture, we understand each other and we operate on the same wavelength. We can communicate rather easily. We don’t need to follow a complex management process.
At the moment, we are using the KANBAN method for getting things done. That’s all. That’s how engineering works. Since our team is small, it is just one room, we are always talking with each other. We have realized that KANBAN works quite well for us as a small team. So we are not going for anything complex.
Samiha: It is not that we have built the team with an intention that we will hire people of this age group or that. It just so happened. When we interviewed people, we hired the best people we could find. There happens to be an engineer who is a senior from BRAC. We did not know her before hiring. During hiring, we found her to be an excellent candidate for the position and we hired her. That’s how it happened. It has been quite organic.
Omran: Bonton and the technology we are working on are quite new. Most of these technologies we have not figured out yet. The most important thing we measure while interviewing candidates is perceptibility – when we give a completely new problem to an engineer, how they behave, and approach the challenge. When we vetted our interviewees through this process, these young people ended up to be the best candidates who are open to new ideas and complex problems and flexible enough to find new solutions. I guess one of the benefits of having young people is that they don’t have that fixed mindset coming in. They are not christened to a particular way of doing things and they are open to new ideas and approaches. That’s something important for us as a company. That’s one of the benefits.
We have not met many negative aspects except for the public perception that these are all kids and let’s not take them seriously.
Ruhul: I think there are a lot of advantages to being a student and starting something when at university because your downside of failure is almost nonexistent. You could go, try and fail, and then go on without losing anything except time and effort. Outside of school, the cost of failure is quite high. We started FS when we were students as well. We never thought we would eventually pursue it as a full-time career at any point in our life but eventually, that happened. One advantage of being a student and starting a business is that the cost of failure is low. You could fail and go pretty much, okay so what. There are some perception problems such as people don’t take you seriously. The other downside is time. You need to split between your academic work and business whereas startups are all-consuming things where you need to work almost all the time. How do you deal with that? A lot of people drop out eventually when they find some traction and try to solve something that you are trying to do which is a critical problem. What are the downsides of being a founder and a student at the same time?
Omran: Samiha could answer this. My university life has been in ruins since I have been working from an early age.
Samiha: Obviously, I have to allocate time. But at the back of my mind, I’m always thinking about Bonton. At the same time, I find a lot of value in doing my major since I’m studying CSE. I believe I’m learning things that I can directly apply to build my company. This keeps me motivated to study because it enables me to contribute to my company.
Albeit managing time is a struggle. I have to allocate time which I’m still learning and have room for further improvements. Pandemic has been of great help since we have been doing classes online and it is more of an on-demand model where we could do courses anytime when we want. There are recorded lectures and we watch them at our convenience. It has been of great help. I could manage my time better.
Omran: I have to mention that BRAC is extremely positive towards working students. When I tell my professors that I’m working, they cooperate. They consider attendance and allow us to manage other aspects of classes. Major thanks to BRAC for doing this. BRAC also incubates us.
Samiha: We have a coworking space at our university.
What are some of the lessons you have learned?
Samiha: When we came up with the idea a lot of people told us that don’t tell your ideas to others. But Omran and I both learned that when we talk about our idea, it gets better. We learn and can improve it. When we share our ideas, we get more inputs and feedback that help us to polish our ideas. That is the lesson I have learned. Share your idea, talk to people, and trust in the goodness of people.
Omran: That’s kind of the basis of our startup that we are trusting the goodness of people to share their internet.
Ruhul: That’s a beautiful way to put it.
Omran: If we don’t trust people with our idea, it does not make sense for us because we are asking them to share their internet connection. The idea we told you today is completely different from what we had in November last year. All this happened because we spoke with people and got feedback from people. People gave us important feedback and ideas that helped us to evolve. We realize that talking to people is the best thing to do as an early-stage founder. It helps you to validate your idea, and your idea matures as well.
I have also learned that communication is one of the most critical things even in engineering where you work alone and all that. People imagine that there is this lone hacker who codes and hacks all the time sitting in a basement. But that’s not how it works. You should always be in communication with your teams. Unless you are in communication with your team, you are going to write a completely different program than the one is needed to build the product.