In 2020, the country's telecom service providers received 45 lakh new subscribers and the top two mobile phone operators together secured 44 lakh or 97% of them.
In the same period, the number of Internet subscribers increased by 1.24 crore.
Meanwhile, in the first nine months of last year, Grameenphone made a profit of Tk2,585 crore, which was Tk54 crore higher than its earnings in the entire year of 2019.
On the other hand, Robi – the second-largest mobile operator in Bangladesh – made a profit of Tk115 crore in the first nine months of last year, although it could not profit more than Tk17 crore in 2019.
It appears that the Covid-19 pandemic has proved a boon for the telecom service providers despite its disastrous impact on life and the economy because they did not expand their network capacity to match the huge load, according to experts.
Customers have struggled with frequent call drops, no signal and low Internet speed on a regular basis.
Some 112.95 crore calls dropped between January and August of 2020, according to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC).
Of these, Robi subscribers suffered 48.17 crore call drops while Grameenphone and Banglalink users experienced 46.01 crore and 14.65 crore call interruptions during the first eight months of last year.
Sweety Begum, a newly married woman who lives in Chattogram and her husband lives in Dhaka for work, relies heavily on video streaming apps such as Messenger, IMO and Whatsapp to keep connected with her husband.
But communication between them often becomes very boring due to the slow Internet speed and poor network.
During their talks, they miss each other's conversations.
"We cannot feel each other's emotion as the conversations often get laggy due to slow data speed," said an aggrieved Sweety Begum.
Telecom experts say call drops and overall poor connectivity have been happening as the mobile operators are not investing in expanding their network. They are making profit with the same infrastructure they had two years ago.
Telecommunication and IT expert Sumon Ahmed Sabir said people have been facing the worst-ever telecom service due to some reasons.
"First of all, operators have not invested in network expansion for two years over a dilemma as the government was talking about a 5G rollout. The two major operators locked into a tussle with the regulator in 2019. That prevented them from new investment," he said.
Sumon Ahmed Sabir said the telecommunication regulatory commission has to take responsibility to improve telecom services.
Since the latest spectrum auction held in 2018, market leader Grameenphone has 37 MHz spectrum, Robi 36.4 MHz, Banglalink 30.6 MHz, and Teletalk 25.2 MHz in three different bands.
Zakir Hossain Khan, spokesperson of the BTRC, said spectrum shortage at the operators' end is the main reason behind poor telecom services.
"New spectrum allocation has been in the discussion for a long time. We hope mobile operators will reach a decision soon on the issue," he said.
However, no comment on the poor service was found from Grameenphone.
Asked about the issue Taimur Rahman, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer of Banglalink, said, "Due to unresolved issues regarding towers, we could not install new towers for more than a year.
"It was necessary for expanding our network across the country. A few months ago the issue was resolved finally, and we were the first operator to sign agreements with tower companies to expand our network."
"Moreover, the existing tax structure is also a very big challenge towards the sustainability of smaller operators. Nevertheless, we believe that our overall performance was satisfactory in terms of the way we have maintained stability of our performance amid these challenges in recent times.
"Our superior service quality was even recognised by renowned global organisations such as Ookla, which declared Banglalink as the fastest mobile network in the country," he added.
Not only the mobile data service, but bandwidth capacity also has not increased compared to the jump in its usage. New Internet subscribers have increased Internet usage by 50% to 1826Gbps from 1192 last year.
Meanwhile, the capacity of the Internet providing infrastructure was only extended by 20% to 2401Gbps from 1995Gbps of the previous year.
Therefore, mobile and Internet users are suffering from poor telecom services such as frequent call drops, slow Internet speeds and buffering in video streaming.
Md Emdadul Hoque, secretary-general at Internet Service Providers Association of Bangladesh, said they have enough infrastructure capacity to provide quality services.
"However, sometimes, service quality drops due to the cutting off of cables by the city corporations and other organisations," he said.
Grameenphone outshines other operators
With the addition of 45 lakh, fresh subscribers last year, the total number of mobile SIM users, irrespective of operators, reached 17.013 crore in December last year, says the BTRC.
According to the telecom regulator, Bangladesh had 16.55 crore mobile SIM subscribers in December 2019.
Among the four mobile operators in the country, Grameenphone succeeded to retain the top spot in terms of subscribers. The telecom operator now has 7.90 crore subscribers. The number was 7.64 crore in the same month of the previous year.
"Grameenphone is passionately continuing to innovate, providing comprehensive 4G and 3G coverage, and digital solutions in a highly competitive and regulated market.
"During the unprecedented Covid-19 crisis, the resilient GP network has met new-normal customer needs, the demand for data surge, and emergency support to socio-economic lives, resulting in further confidence in GP network among existing and new customers," said Md Hasan, sead of External Communications at Grameenphone Ltd.
Banglalink was at the bottom in securing new subscribers. Last year, the operator registered only 30,000 new subscribers.
When asked, Taimur Rahman, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer of Banglalink, said, "2020 was an extremely challenging year for us due to the hurdles caused by the pandemic, its overall economic impacts and other natural calamities. Even though our customer-base grew during this period, its rate has been less compared to two other big operators."
Talking about the less subscriber registration, Taimur Rahman said, "This testifies to the fact that it is getting increasingly difficult for smaller operators to survive in this market because of the SMP operator's dominance.
"For this reason, we believe the regulator should take necessary initiatives to ensure that the SMP obligations are impactful. But we have not seen any such measures yet."