The question hounding mobile users: how do we top-up amid shutdown?
Mobile phones have long ago become an integral part of people's life and its utility is being strongly felt every minute as people in Bangladesh have physically been cut off from their neighbourhood and from the rest of the country because of the movement control order put in place to contain the deadly coronavirus.
For Tawhidul Islam's family, mobile data usage has increased two-fold to carry out various tasks, including working from home, facilitating children to attend online school, keeping in touch with relatives, online shopping, utility bill payment and consulting doctor via telemedicine.
The family of the 35-year-old private sector employee is not alone; due to the ongoing lockdown, many other families, who form the country's 16.61-crore-strong mobile subscriber base, are using mobile phones several times more than in the past and the device has become one of the most reliable means to carry out emergency tasks and maintain social communication.
Mobile data usage has increased by 15 to 20 per cent, according to the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh.
About 45 million people have used bKash to top up mobile balance in April, which was 32 million in January, an increase of 40 per cent, according to data from the country's leading mobile financial service (MFS) provider.
But keeping mobile devices with sufficient balance is not easy as recharge points and customer service centres are largely shuttered owing to the ongoing lockdown and the difficulty in collecting money from these outlets in exchange of digital balance.
As a result, about one crore mobile connections in Bangladesh have no balance at the moment.
The entire mobile industry is suffering from this challenge and state-owned telecom operator Teletalk is getting the biggest hit.
Teletalk sent a letter to the telecom ministry informing the policymakers about the challenges, saying its revenue declined about 40 per cent because of the situation.
"Our business has been impacted because of the unavailability of our recharge points," said Shahab Uddin, managing director of Teletalk.
Bandwidth consumption has increased but earnings have not. "Besides, we will have to pay the bills to third parties."
Collecting money from retailers and topping up their balance has become tough for the mobile operators' sales representatives. As a result, recharge points are running without balance.
Due to the enforcement of the lockdown, several balance recharge agents' points are not fully operational across the country, Grameenphone said in a statement.
As a result, many people can't recharge or are facing difficulties to recharge. Hence, Grameenphone is providing balance transfer free from one user to another.
Telecoms Minister Mustafa Jabbar acknowledged the challenges. "It is true that most parts of the country are locked down because of the coronavirus."
"Even a few days ago, this challenge was severe. The situation has improved after we took some measures."
Mobile operators are using Nagad, an MFS of the postal division run by a private entity, to collect money for them.
The carriers can also consider using postal services to move money as most of the post offices are located in the remote areas and they are open, the minister said.
Though the government has included telecom as an emergency service, recharge points and customer care centres have been facing challenges in running operations.
This prompted mobile operators to switch to online recharges through MFS and online banking channels. They are even using some city-centric platforms like Pathao. Any Pathao deliveryman can make recharge.
Balance top-up through MFS and internet more than doubled to 30 per cent from less than 15 per cent before the coronavirus reached the shores of Bangladesh.
"Our digital recharge has gone up significantly in the last one month and we are promoting all the possible digital channels for recharging customers account," said a senior executive of Robi.
Considering the overall situation and keeping customers' convenience in mind, Banglalink is not disconnecting connections that have run out of validity due to recharge difficulties at this moment, said Taimur Rahman, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer of Banglalink.