The Airtel Bangladesh Ltd, which merged with Robi in 2016, is set to lose its 2G licence in December this year, when its validity for 15 years will expire.
Unless the operator renews the licence, The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) will revoke 11.6 megahertz (MHz) from the company's spectrum following the expiration date of December 19.
Confirming the matter, a BTRC source told The Business Standard that if Robi – which has been running Airtel since the merger – does not renew the 2G licence in time, a large number of its customers might suffer from poor service, such as call drops and slower mobile internet.
The source added that Robi would have to spend around $359.9 million to retain the 11.6 megahertz (MHz) spectrum in its network system, as per the BTRC's latest spectrum auction rate.
Telecom operators usually apply for a renewal of the licence three months ahead of the expiration date.
The Airtel's 2G license holds 11.6 MHz spectrum from the E-GSM-900 MHz and GSM 1800 MHz Band. After expiration of the license, the BTRC will take back the spectrum from Airtel's system.
Stating that the company has not yet started working on the issue, Chief Corporate and Regulatory Officer of Robi, Shahed Alam, told The Business Standard, "Airtel's license will expire in December. So, we still have not thought about it."
Speaking about any possible impact on customer service following the licence expiration, Shahed said, "Robi has 2G, 3G and 4G licenses along with Airtel's 3G. So there will be no issues with the customer service."
A source at Robi, however, said that the company has already applied for renewal of the spectrum allocation, and also requested the regulator to allot the airwaves at a cheaper rate compared to the previous auction price.
In the previous auction for 4G technology in 2018, the BTRC fixed $27 million as the floor price per MHz of spectrum in the 2100 band, and $31 million per MHz in the 1,800 and 900 bands.
At that time, Banglalink acquired a total of 10.6MHz spectrum – 5MHz in the 2100 band and 5.6MHz in the 1,800 band – for $308.6 million, while market leader Grameenphone took 5MHz only in the 1,800 bands at $155 million.
However, the other operator Robi Axiata Ltd did not participate in the bid.
At present, the market leader Grameenphone has 37 megahertz (MHz) spectrum, Robi 36.4MHz, Banglalink 30.6MHz, and Teletalk 25.2MHz in three different bands.
Responding to a query, BTRC's Chairman, Md Jahurul Haque, said the commission will allocate the spectrum as per its own rules.
"Spectrum renewal, whether at a higher price or lower price, will occur as per the government's rules," BTRC's Chairman Md Jahurul Haque told The Business Standard.
However, a few months ago, Banglalink Chief Corporate and Regulatory Affairs Officer, Taimur Rahman, said at an event that the government should allocate the spectrum as per the latest auction price to ensure competitiveness.
"If the regulator allocates the spectrum at a lesser price now, Banglalink will reclaim a portion of the money it spent during last auction," he said.
In April this year, three mobile phone service providers – Robi, Banglalink and state-run Teletalk – applied for free spectrum to the BTRC for three months, while market leader Grameenphone verbally requested a discounted price.
However, the Bangladesh government refused to allocate spectrum to mobile phone service providers either at a discounted price or free of charge during the Covid-19 emergency.