Standard 4G internet speed still elusive
Mobile users in Bangladesh are suffering from slower data speed despite the launch of fourth-generation (4G) technology four years ago, as operators have failed to ensure the minimum internet speed set by the regulator.
During the drive-tests last year, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) found that the mobile operators could not maintain the minimum speed of 7 Mbps as standard for 4G.
Market leader Grameenphone could not ensure the minimum speed in any of the eight divisions in the country while the second-largest network operator, Robi Axiata, was able to maintain it in just a single division, which was Rangpur, at 8.36 Mbps.
Third-placed Banglalink fared comparatively better as it was providing internet services at a speed of 7 Mbps in four divisions.
Banglalink's data speed was 8.8 Mbps in Mymensingh, 8.93 Mbps in Sylhet, 7.05 Mbps in Rajshahi, and 8.01 Mbps in Dhaka division, excluding the Dhaka city corporation areas.
State-run Teletalk, which introduced 5G internet service on a trial basis in December last year, was the worst performer when it comes to 4G as it was providing services with less than 3 Mbps of speed everywhere, except Sylhet where the speed stood at 3.39 Mbps.
The commission carried out the drive-test in 267 upazilas of 59 districts, covering 14,085 kilometres to measure the quality of services provided by the mobile operators.
The test started with Dhaka, where it took place from January 23 to February 8. It ended with Khulna, where it ran from November 2 to 27.
According to the policy of the BTRC, the minimum speed for 3G service should be 2 Mbps and the minimum speed for 4G is 7 Mbps.
All operators failed to provide the standard 4G speed in Dhaka, Chattogram, Barishal and Khulna, according to the BTRC findings.
Many users say the experience was bad in terms of both internet speed and voice calls.
"For the last three months, I have not been able to browse properly as the speed is so low," said Ahmed Tapu, a resident in the capital's Pallabi area.
Mohammad Asif, another user in Dhaka, says internet speed has improved a bit in recent weeks in the capital.
"But, when I go outside of Dhaka or get into a transport, the data speed falls drastically. Sometimes it doesn't even work," he added.
Operators say additional spectrum bought during the auction last year, technology up-gradation and modernisation of the network are helping them provide faster internet.
Speaking about the failure to maintain the minimum speed, Hossain Sadat, acting chief corporate affairs officer of GP, said 2021 was a challenging year as the company was at a crossroads of acquiring future-ready network capabilities, navigating numerous industry and ecosystem-related challenges while meeting an unprecedented amount of connectivity needs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
GP deployed an additional spectrum, and with the help of modern radio technology, it extended bandwidth in long-term evolution (LTE), which boosted data experience further.
Transmission and core network capacity enhancement have provided the best end-user experience, he said.
According to him, GP's 4G internet speed is now 8 Mbps in Barishal and Khulna, and 10 Mbps in Dhaka.
"GP itself is carrying out drive tests regularly across the country to ensure the best 4G network experience, and these efforts will continue."
Shahed Alam, chief corporate and regulatory officer of Robi Axiata, says the standard of mobile services depends on the service customers wish to avail.
He says a maximum 5 Mbps speed is adequate to support all data-based services available on the internet.
For example, in order to watch a 720p quality video, a customer needs only 2.5 Mbps speed. Customers would require a maximum 5 Mbps speed to enjoy a 1080p video.
"Due to a lack of affordable spectrum and unreliable and poor quality of optical fibre network, we, the mobile network operators, did not agree to any minimum speed limit proposed by our regulator," Alam said.
Ankit Sureka, head of corporate communications and sustainability of Banglalink, says following the deployment of the new 9.4 MHz spectrum purchased last year, the operator currently has the most spectrum per subscriber among the private operators in Bangladesh.
"As a result, we have been able to provide better and considerably improved services for our customers."
The better speed has been one of the key reasons Banglalink managed to win the Ookla Speedtest Award, which represents real-world network performance and the internet speeds and coverage provided to customers, four times in a row.
Sureka thinks high spectrum prices, higher tax rates, and lower 4G handset penetration are the major barriers facing the industry today.
"The lack of a level playing field in the market is another concern."
Moreover, regulatory support for achieving efficiency through sharing of facilities and services such as tower/in-building solutions, radio access network, and spectrum is also necessary, he said.
A number of officials of the operators say despite the steep decline in data price, they have continued to invest heavily in strengthening network quality, but it is difficult to make a business case for further big investments since most of their revenue goes to the government exchequer.
Mustafa Jabbar, telecom minister, said the government has taken up projects for the modernisation and expansion of Teletalk's network.
He said compared to private operators, the investment in Teletalk is meagre.
According to the 2021 Digital Quality of Life index, published by globally acclaimed VPN service company Surfshark, Bangladesh has one of the worst mobile internet speeds as the country ranked 103rd among 110 nations.
Ghulam Rahman, president of the Consumers Association of Bangladesh, said the drive-test report proved that customers are being deprived of the service for which they pay.
"The regulator should take steps so that customers get compensation for the low-quality services. If compensation is not given, the BTRC should fine the operator."
Subrata Roy Maitra, vice-chairman of the BTRC, said the result has been sent to the operators with instructions to resolve the problems and submit a compliance report.
"Legal action will be taken in accordance with the regulation if the operators fail to submit the report," he added.