When should Bangladesh bid 3G adieu?
Although many countries have already shut down 3G, the third generation of wireless mobile telecommunications technology, or announced phase-out plans, Bangladesh is yet to set a specific deadline as a chunk of customers still use it.
With 4G being steadily deployed countrywide, operators are eyeing to phase out the technology in the coming years.
Ageing 3G networks eat up a substantial share of the operator's capital expenditure andoperating expense and the investment does not justify average revenue per user, said the industry people.
Moreover, it is important to free up valuable spectrum resources for the 4G expansion, they said.
The 4G is technologically superior to 3G, offering much faster data speeds.
The maximum upload rate of 3G is 5 megabytes per second while it can go much higher with 4G, about 500 megabytes per second.
The maximum download rate of 3G is about 21 megabytes per second. But 4G technology can download videos at a much faster rate, going as high as 1 gigabit per second.
Only Robi Axiata announced at the end of the third quarter of 2021 that it plans to phase out 3G by 2023.
It kicked off the transition from Chapainawabganj, Naogaon and Natore.
"In some of the areas of Rajshahi Division, Robi has already shut down 3G. Now we are working in Sylhet," said Shahed Alam, chief corporate and regulatory officer at Robi Axiata.
The main barrier to quickly phasing out 3G is the presence of the existing 3G users in the networks, according to officials of operators and regulators.
"There are many customers with 4G handsets who do not have 4G SIM. So, we are helping them by providing discounted or free SIMs," said Alam.
In Bangladesh, there were about 28 million 3G subscribers as of September this year, according to Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC). Of them, about 14 million use 3G.
The country lagged behind many countries for over 10 years before entering the 3G era in 2013. During that time, many countries deployed 4G.
The regulator assigned 35 MHz frequency for five mobile phone operators to provide services through 3G.
"That time we had said we should skip 3G and introduce 4G directly. But nobody listens to us. Now we have to phase it out after making significant investment," said an official of an operator.
In 2017, the number of 3G subscribers crossed 7 million, its peak.
However, the 3G subscriber count started to fall in 2018, when Bangladesh adopted 4G.
As of September this year, there were 81.4 million 4G subscribers. Out of them, 73.9 million used internet over 4G.
Meanwhile, there were still 71.4 subscribers of 2G as over 50 per cent of mobile users still use feature phones.
"I have recently attended the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council meeting with a 5G project for Teletalk," said Telecom and ICT Minister Mustafa Jabbar at an event recently.
"During the meeting, the prime minister clearly instructed me to keep 2G service for a few more years, because many people still use feature phones," he said.
"There is no reason to continue 3G service after introducing 4G. Because, 3G will no longer bring any fruits to the customers," he added.
From January 1, there will be no 3G set production and import in Bangladesh, said Jabbar.
"The people who still own a 3G phone will continue to use it. When lifetime of their 3G set ends, 3G service will be automatically shut down," he said.
He said they were discoursing the operators from going for 3G expansion.
"If you could provide 3G, you wouldn't need 4G. The technology is such a thing where a new one overtook the old ones," he added.
However, industry people said there should be a regulatory directive for the 3G shutdown.
Unlike Grameenphone and Banglalink, 3G shutdown will be much easier for Robi, which has the largest 4G customers base in the country despite being the country's second largest mobile operator in terms of customer numbers and revenue generation.
As of November, the total number of 3G-only customers of Robi stood at 3.45 million. It has a total of over 54 million customers.
The number of 3G subscribers of the top operator, Grameenphone, which has over 81 million customers, stands at about 9 million as of October 2022.
The operator said a decision for the 3G shutdown would be an important milestone for improving customer experience, subject to the regulatory directives.
"For achieving this milestone, customer awareness and a systematic approach to 3G to 4G migration will expedite the implementation process," said Grameenphone in a statement.
The third-placed operator, Banglalink, with its 39.2 million customers, has about 9 million 3G subscribers now. Of them, 2.5 million use 3G internet, said an official of the operator wishing anonymity.
"Ultimately, we have to shut down 3G. We have to ensure that the customers do not face any problem," said Taimur Rahman, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer at Banglalink.
"Utilising the same spectrum, more people can be provided with 4G than 3G," he said.