This is a repost of the “Man and Machine” series written by Moinul Zaber (@zabermi) for The Daily Star. The original post was published back on May 1, 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created unprecedented havoc around the world. However, a crisis of this extent also creates opportunities to test and resolve issues that seem unsolvable at other times. We are losing lives, but the world is not at a total stand-still. Thanks to technology we are still working, communicating, and generating money. Without a pivotal role played by the regulatory organisations and communications market players around the world, this would not have been possible! Our telecom market also played its role. But without proper coordination, lack of vision and limited understanding of techno-economic needs, these efforts probably did not meet the desired goal. Covid-19 is not going away soon, and the telecom sector will have to play a stronger role to protect our economy and lives.

DE-CIX in Frankfurt, one of the world’s busiest Internet Interconnection hubs, reported that last year in March 2020 the Covid-19 lockdown increased peak traffic by 800 Gigabits per second. Microsoft reported that online collaboration software usage rose by 40 percent in a week at the same time. The number of mobile internet subscribers rose from around 92 million in January 2020 to 104 million in September 2020. In response, the regulators of the UK, US, EU countries, Australia, and many others have taken measures for flexible IMT spectrum use. Countries like Vietnam, Brazil, Portugal opted for network management. From free Wi-Fi (Philippines) to free data access (India, Brazil, Bahrain, Spain) the telecom marketplace brought in many innovations to aid the residents.

In May 2020, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) published a document reflecting the key initiatives and innovations in response to Covid-19. They have emphasised the coordination among governmental departments, the need for regulation and legislation to improve ICT capacity for a pandemic, enhancement of ICT management skills, increasing bandwidth, managing congestions and strengthening resilience and security of the network. Broadly speaking the emphasis was on robust infrastructure. Innovation has no bounds but for a resource-constrained country, it is important to plan and prioritise.

Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Council (BTRC) and the telecom companies have also taken a number of initiatives. First and foremost was making a large chunk of spectrum available for the operators. Among other initiatives worth mentioning are, increasing data use without raising the price, extending the validity of prepaid service, flexible payment options, making contents affordable or special packages for health and education, etc. All these efforts seem piecemeal, uncoordinated and hasty. The authorities should understand that all these can be possible if a precise goal is set. That goal should be to build an environment where users can get the best data experience at the lowest price obtainable. Only then network effect will keep the market competitive and help it grow.

Unfortunately, our network infrastructure is ill-managed. According to GSMA, last year during the second quarter, Bangladesh saw a surge in the per-customer data consumption that rose from 16-29 percent while voice calls decreased by 6.5-7 percent. The report also tells us that overall revenue declined and data revenue increase was insignificant. Moreover, there was a 2.4 percent decrease in active subscribers and a 0.3 percent decrease in mobile internet subscribers.

What could be the reason? Well, primarily it is affordability and secondly, it is quality. According to the world’s leading internet testing company OOKLA, even though the global average download speed during the pandemic rose at a steady pace, Bangladeshi users did not see the increase in broadband speed. The OOKLA global index ranks Bangladesh at 136th position among 140 countries from where they collect download speed data. Behind us in the list are Palestine, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. With the surge in bandwidth, we should have experienced a high quality of service and more revenue for the operators. But what went wrong?

Many can argue about the tax imposed on voice and data having a negative impact on affordability, reduced revenue that bars the operators to enhance technical capability. However, blaming the tax regime undermines the systematic infrastructural incapability of the data service sector of the country. Data service delivery in Bangladesh has a number of tiers from data wholesales (like IIGs, IGWs, and submarine cable companies) to data retailers (such as mobile network operators). Unfortunately, most of the tiers are filled with inexperienced companies with not much regulatory oversight ensuring the quality of service. If we want to ensure affordable and quality data service, all the tiers in the pipeline should be technologically equipped and properly monitored. The regulators need to keep the market vibrant, competitive and growth prone at all these tiers. We have three suggestions to ponder upon.

First of all, BTRC needs to find a way to forecast data bandwidth requirements. Customers complain relentlessly about the poor data performance of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and mobile operators. Competing operators try to find ways to entice customers with convoluted information and pricing mechanisms based on flawed, misleading data and claims such as “fastest,” “best coverage” and “most improved” service!  BTRC may argue that they have sold enough spectrum to the mobile operators. However, the ISPs and the mobile operators are retailers, it is up to the data wholesalers to make sure that sufficient bandwidth is available. Without the ability of proper forecasting, it is not possible to assess the need.

Secondly, BTRC should ensure a robust fibre infrastructure. The mobile cell-phone towers are connected with each other via fibre or microwave. Optical fibres can ensure the highest bandwidth with the best operational performance at present. Operators claim that almost 90 percent of their mobile towers are 4G enabled. However, only 15 percent of these towers have fibre connectivity. This means that even though there is enough spectrum the operators will never be able to give a 4G experience to the customers. The operators largely depend on the capabilities of fibre companies. So many companies of different public and private ownerships play in this tier without much capability to ascertain their impact on the overall mobile market—it is the regulator’s job to push them to expand, communicate, and ensure their quality-of-service (QoS) level. Similar reasoning goes for the tower-owning companies—regulators need to find a way to compel them to expand their own towers—4G needs new towers if we want the users to experience better quality data at a low cost.

Finally, BTRC needs to make sure that the companies at all the tiers of data service delivery sit on active coordination meetings at least four times a year. This will happen if there is active guidance from BTRC. We have introduced too many tiers in the data service system and BTRC neither has the capacity nor the ability to monitor their needs—oftentimes many of the issues could be resolved if effective coordination meetings are held with an aim to resolve the issues. 

BTRC succeeded to bring forth a fortune to the public exchequer via the 4G spectrum auction. However, they need to lobby the government to make sure that they have the allocation for modernisation. Regulatory challenges during Covid-19 are of various forms and only a knowledgeable, future-looking, competent staff can help the country during this time. An efficient healthcare system can help us survive while an adept telecom market can ensure that our economy thrives. BTRC needs to be able to take up the challenge. The question is are they willing to do so?