Regulating convergence of telecom technologies
PRIORITIES OF CONSUMERS
57% want faster data speed
51% seek reliable connections
50% look for cost-effective data plans
35% want better indoor and outdoor coverage
21% wish for better quality of video calls
The telecom sector in general has seen several new technologies being rolled out in recent years. Around five years ago, third generation mobile telecommunications services, known as 3G, became operational in Bangladesh. In 2018, next generation services (or 4G) were launched in the country. At the same time, the capacity of the optical fibre network was increased substantially to support the increased bandwidth requirements of consumers.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is the body responsible for regulating all telecom-related developments in Bangladesh. The recent rollouts of new communication technologies such as 3G and 4G were licenced and supervised by the BTRC.
The BTRC has also earned substantial revenue by selling licences to private mobile network operators (MNOs) and allocating spectrum to them. For example, the BTRC's revenue increased by 58 percent in the financial year 2017-18 from the previous financial year through the sale of 4G spectrum to MNOs. With the increase in the number of subscribers and usage of mobile telephony, some large operators may decide to buy additional spectrum to maintain service quality in general and to reduce the number of call drops in particular.
At the same time, technological advancements and entrepreneurial ambitions have set the stage for the next big rollout of communications—5G technology. This technology will offer unprecedented internet and data interchange speed to users. And while retail consumers are expected to start experiencing these improvements through faster video downloads, there are ample opportunities for the larger population to benefit by making full use of this technology. With the right kind of planning, the technology can bring unique benefits to consumers in Bangladesh.
Rollout of 5G will require deployment of small cells across the coverage area. Small cells use low power and short-range wireless transmission systems (base stations), which cover a small geographical area indoors or outdoors. They are likely to help in creation of a low latency network—the foundation on which high-speed data access can be provided to subscribers.
A low latency network can also be developed without deploying small cells. Modern satellite communication systems are capable of creating such a network. Some start-up companies in the US are already working on this and some have obtained licences from the regulator in the US to position more than 4,000 satellites in low orbits around the world to provide low-latency internet connections on the earth's surface as well as in the air space.
Telecom regulators around the world need to think of innovative ways to facilitate such rollouts. For example, there is a growing conversation in the US about the visual disfigurement of beautiful neighbourhoods with deployment of so many small cells. In such situations, some communities may opt for deployment of a low-latency network via satellite communications.
However, it seems that consumers tend to value speed and cost-effectiveness above beautification. In May 2018, PwC conducted a survey among 800 mobile and internet users in the US to understand their awareness of 5G technology and their expectations from its deployment. The top three expectations included fast data transfer speed, improved reliability of service and overall cost-effectiveness. But while 5G technology is capable of offering higher speed than wi-fi and is more reliable, achievement of these expectations will depend on how operators deploy the technology.
Deployment of 5G technology or any other low-latency network will involve further investments in infrastructure development. The BTRC has recently separated the licence to set up towers from the licence for mobile network operations. The licence to set up optical fibre networks is also separate. The regulator will, therefore, have to clarify who will be responsible for deploying small cells among these licencees, as well as the rules of collaboration among the licencees so that consumers in Bangladesh can avail cost-effective and high-quality services. For example, each small cell will need connectivity to an optical fibre network, which will require optical fibre network operators to increase their last mile penetration.
Innovation to solve localised problems will play an important role in delivering the benefits of these new technologies right down to the bottom of the economic pyramid. But what will need to be kept in mind is that although the technology is global, the problems faced in Bangladesh are largely local and will require localised solutions. The regulator can play a proactive role in creating an ecosystem for start-up companies to work on creating such solutions in collaboration with service providers, e.g. tower licencees, MNOs, optical fibre network providers, and other stakeholders.
Innovation will also be needed to create an affordable price point for a low latency network. The regulator may assume a proactive role in facilitating innovations, such as developing small cells that use solar energy to reduce energy costs and the carbon footprint. In addition, the regulator could allocate a part of the licence fees it collects to incubate such innovative solutions and make these deployable at reduced costs.
Technological interventions will also mean overlapping responsibilities for regulators. For example, several new healthcare solutions are expected to emerge with the rollout of 5G technology and enhanced connectivity among healthcare centres. Traditional telecommunications-based services such as telemedicine will get redefined due to wider scope of services through improved data connectivity. To achieve this, the regulators of health and communication services will need to collaborate to maximise benefits for the people of Bangladesh.
This new environment will require new regulatory capabilities, including inter-regulatory collaboration. Regulators will also have to rely more on technology to regulate their licencees. Regulatory Technology, also known as RegTech, is expected to play a significant role in boosting such capabilities. There is, therefore, a significant opportunity for Bangladesh to catalyse its national growth and inclusive digitalisation by using RegTech.
Bangladesh has made rapid progress in adopting new communication technologies and using these to deliver significant benefits to its citizens. A proactive outlook and regulatory planning will help the country accelerate the progress of adoption of such technologies and achieve many of the objectives of the Digital Bangladesh programme.
The writer is a partner at PwC. The views expressed here are personal.