Over the last one year, 62 lakh new mobile connections became active, 57 lakh new users started using mobile data, and about 2 crore people switched to the much faster 4G connection. But only two new cell towers have been set up in the entire country.
This is subjecting subscribers to call drops, poor internet speeds, busy networks, and signal bars disappearing.
To ensure proper service to their subscribers, they need at least 3,000 cell towers either newly built, upgraded, or replaced altogether, carriers said.
They said they could not do that themselves since Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) introduced a new tower licencing system under which third parties are in charge of cell towers and carriers rent towers from them.
The BTRC gave four cell tower companies licences a year ago and they were supposed to start building towers within six months of getting the licences. None of them are doing so now because none of the companies that are new are ready to do so, sources said.
Mobile operators and cell tower companies are supposed to make deals regarding tower usage and rents and the BTRC is supposed to approve those deals. But the BTRC is interfering by making the agreement and imposing it on carriers and cell tower companies, said carriers.
Subscribers are the ones suffering due to the whole affair, they said.
Many carriers’ capacity, especially in cities, has been exhausted and they cannot serve their customers quality service, they said.
The carriers are serving 16.26 crore active connections with 28,000 towers across the country. Of the active subscribers, 9.24 crore use mobile data.
Grameenphone, the largest carrier, and cell tower company edotco had reached an agreement following the Tower Sharing Licencing Guidelines formulated by the BTRC.
According to Grameenphone officials, it submitted the deal to the BTRC for approval on July 14.
“Instead of approving the negotiated and agreed SLA [service level agreement] which solves the issue, the BTRC has been trying to impose a non-negotiated common commercial agreement on the operators. This action by the BTRC is contrary to the Tower Sharing Licensing Guidelines and principles of fair competition and it affects all parties concerned,” said a Grameenphone official.
Through the common commercial agreement, the BTRC is killing competition, mobile operators complained.
When the BTRC started the negotiations, Grameenphone walked out of the meeting stating that it was illegal.
The BTRC has already drafted the common agreement after meeting other players in the industry. It fixed high monthly charges for sharing the towers.
Carriers are now sharing towers for charges starting from Tk 41,000 a month for rooftop ones and Tk 55,000 for ground-based ones. In the draft common agreement, the BTRC fixed Tk 65,000 and Tk 85,000 respectively.
The mobile operators had asked the BTRC not to fix the charges and leave it to bilateral negotiations. In a meeting last week, Prime Minister’s ICT Adviser Sajeeb Wazed Joy also asked the BTRC to do the same to ensure competition.
Robi said it was very unfortunate that the regulator chose to intervene by framing the agreement on behalf of carriers and the tower companies going beyond the scope of the tower guidelines.
“This is clearly inconsistent with the guidelines and as a result, even after a year of issuing tower company licenses, the country has managed to have only a couple of towers being set-up by the tower companies,” said Shahed Alam, chief corporate and regulatory officer at Robi.
The pricing framework proposed by the regulator is commercially unviable for Robi, Shahed said.
“When the tower companies were issued licence, the objective was to bring efficiency to this aspect of the telecom business by lowering the cost of availing tower services. Rather than reducing cost, the regulator’s proposal will increase our existing cost,” he said.
Asked, BTRC Chairman Md Jahurul Haque said, “I have no idea about the Grameenphone and edotco’s draft SLA.
“I am not sure, but may be our team is considering the whole picture and that’s why they wanted to solve the problem through a common SLA. We have noticed problems between mobile operators and the tower companies. The mobile operators are very demanding. That’s why we went for this process.
“Tower companies had a deadline of May to start setting up towers but they could not do that for this reason. We went there to mediate between the tower companies and the mobile carriers.”
Carriers were approved to establish only the two towers since November last year.
One of them was in the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban area and the other at Khaliajuri of Netrakona, hometown of Telecom Minister Mustafa Jabbar.
A Grameenphone official said they have 279 “critical towers” and that they needed new towers there but did not get BTRC’s permission.
Banglalink had sought the regulator’s approval to replace 54 of its towers but was denied.
To offer quality service, carriers need sufficient spectrum and good number of towers. But since spectrum price is very high, operators try to manage the situation by establishing plenty of towers, said insiders.
Grameenphone in a statement said, “Our rollout of new sites is stopped, and our customers are suffering.”
Tower companies also acknowledged the problem. They said it was difficult to reach a deal with the carriers.
“We can understand the situation and unfortunately there is no other way. This situation will continue for the next few months,” said Imran Karim, chairman of Kirtonkhola Tower Bangladesh.
He said the regulator has stepped in and that there was a solution on the table. He hoped they would be able to start building towers within a few months.
Asked why the process was taking so long, he said a lack of confidence could be the issue. “Mobile operators could be a little uncomfortable with the new telecom business system.”
Karim also hoped that the challenges would be overcome within the first quarter of next year.