Have you ever wondered why your cellphones drop calls so frequently, or why your mobile Internet quality remains very unreliable despite being in the 4G network?
These happen because mobile network operators in the country are not using adequate spectrum – or radio frequency – to cover their customer base. Too many callers are sharing the same spectrum, resulting in quality issues.
A spectrum can carry a certain amount of data, depending on the bandwidth. More bandwidth means more data and better service. An analogy often used to explain the relation between bandwidth and data transmission is that of a water pipe. A narrow pipe can deliver a small amount of water while a large diameter pipe can deliver a large amount of water.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is offering adequate spectrum to these companies at a price that the telcos say is too high. A deadlock has been prevailing over this issue for years, leading to a deterioration of mobile phone services.
Let us see how bad Bangladesh's spectrum scenario is.
For each megahertz (MHz) spectrum, there are 12 lakh mobile phone users in the country, whereas in neighbouring Nepal, which is geographically as big as Bangladesh, each MHz spectrum is used by 3 lakh users.
In Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, 1-4 lakh users share 1 MHz of spectrum, according to telecom stakeholders' data disclosed in April last year.
However, Pakistan – almost double the size of Bangladesh in terms of physical area – also has a spectrum crisis with 12 lakh users sharing each MHz.
Nepal's three mobile operators are using 127.27 MHz of spectrum for their 4.28 crore mobile subscribers. In contrast, four mobile operators in Bangladesh are using 129.2 MHz of spectrum for 17 crore subscribers.
According to the BTRC, Grameenphone, the country's largest mobile operator, has the lowest spectrum coverage for its users.
Over 20 lakh of Grameenphone subscribers are currently occupying each MHz of spectrum.
The second largest operator, Robi Axiata Limited serves 14 lakh subscribers with the same frequency, while Banglalink has 11 lakh users in each MHz of spectrum.
At present, Grameenphone has 37 MHz spectrum, Robi 36.4 MHz, Banglalink 30.6 MHz, and Teletalk has 25.2 MHz spectrum in three different bands.
As a result of a lack of spectrum, the quality of service of mobile operators has started to turn from bad to worse fast as digital penetration, mobile broadband adoption, smartphone use and data traffic continue to rise sharply following the Covid-19 outbreak.
According to BTRC data, some 112.95 crore call drops occurred between January and August of 2020.
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 those eight months.
Besides, slow Internet, poor voice quality and longer time to set up a call have become regular phenomena in the telecom sector.
Meanwhile, mobile operators are making more profit as they have not invested much for network expansion including spectrum procurement.
In 2020, Grameenphone registered a profit of Tk3,720 crore, up by 7.82% compared to the previous year.
On the other hand, Robi made a profit of Tk115 crore in the first nine months of last year, although the figure was Tk17 crore in 2019.
Deadlock over frequency price
Instead of procuring additional spectrum, operators are showing more interest in getting the airwaves at a cheaper rate, as they claim the price of spectrum is 25-35% higher in Bangladesh.
According to the GSMA Intelligence's data, the Bangladesh government collects the highest revenue from per user by assigning spectrum.
The government's earning from per spectrum user is $0.58, which is $0.47 and $0.25 in India and Thailand respectively, says GSMA Intelligence's overview of Bangladesh.
But, the BTRC remains unmoved with regard to reducing spectrum price. Instead, it has decided to allot the airwaves at the previous auction's rate that was held in February 2018.
Confirming the decision, Posts and Telecommunication Minister Mustafa Jabbar said "Spectrum is a national asset. Therefore, we cannot reduce the price based on companies' demand.
"Considering the service quality, we have decided to assign the frequency at the last auction rate in order to avoid further delay. We have informed the telecom operators of our decision on spectrum price. Our spectrum is ready. They will get it once they deposit the fees."
The last spectrum auction was held in 2018, when the BTRC fixed $27 million as the floor price for per MHz of spectrum in the 2100 band, and $30 million per MHz in the 1,800 and 900 bands.
But mobile operators want more time to discuss the rate. When contacted, Grameenphone, which has the highest number of subscribers and lowest volume of spectrum, refused to comment on the issue.
On the other hand, Robi officials said the company welcomes the BTRC's decision on spectrum allocation but that it wants more time to negotiate the rate.
Shahed Alam, chief corporate and regulatory officer of Robi Axiata Ltd, said "We are currently in discussion with the authorities concerned on this matter. As soon as the discussion comes to a fruitful conclusion, we will make an announcement in this regard."
The top buyer of the last auction, Banglalink also thanked the authorities for setting the last auction rate for the new frequency allocation.
Taimur Rahman, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer of Banglalink, said, "We appreciate the BTRC's decision to ensure a level playing field in regard to the spectrum price, as we procured spectrum only a few years back.
"However, the spectrum price is still very high and the government should look into the matter and continue proper consultation."