Is Grameenphone punished for Padma glitch?
"The ban was imposed for the sake of general people as they do not get quality service. Grameenphone's service quality is bad."
For Bangladesh, June 25, 2022 was a momentous day. But for Grameenphone, it is panning out to be a ruinous day.
On June 29, four days after the Padma bridge inauguration, the telecom regulator, on instruction from the posts and telecommunications division the previous day, banned Grameenphone's SIM sales until it 'improves its quality of service including bringing down call drop rate'.
The letter does not specify how Grameenphone failed in terms of quality of service. It does not set any performance improvement criteria either on how to get the ban lifted.
For the country's leading mobile operator, the move was baffling given that its own drive tests were showing it was maintaining all quality-of-service (QoS) key performance indicators as per the threshold set by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission by a good margin.
The QoS metrics include call drop rate, call setup time, call setup success rate, call clarity, service coverage area, and internet download and upload speed.
In May, its call drop rate was 0.55 percent, the lowest among the four operators and well below the BTRC threshold of 2 percent, shows results from the regulator's recent data.
Yet, so severe seems the discontent that the posts and telecommunication division on October 18 fired off a show-cause notice to BTRC over its decision a month earlier to allow Grameenphone to recycle its 13 lakh dormant SIM cards.
"It is totally arbitrary, illegal and mollified. What law did they follow to make this decision?"
BTRC had to walk back on that decision on November 6, leaving the public, the operator and experts confounded.
But on the same day, at the launch event of the regulator's state-of-the-art benchmarking system held at the BTRC office in Dhaka, a picture emerged of why the SIM sales ban was imposed.
"On the day of Padma bridge inauguration, Grameenphone's network was not good there -- the prime minister saw it. The cabinet secretary then called our secretary (posts and telecommunications division) and expressed his displeasure," said BTRC Chairman Shyam Sunder Sikder at the event.
Mustafa Jabbar, the post and telecommunication minister, was present.
At that event, with the benchmarking device purchased with 1.5 million euros, BTRC tested the operators' internet speed. Only Grameenphone passed the BTRC's benchmark average internet download speed of 15Mbps. It logged in 17Mbps.
Still, two days later, at a roundtable styled '5G Technology: Prospects and Actions' organised by Telecom and Technology Reporters' Network, Bangladesh and Robi, where Jabbar was the chief guest, Sikder repeated the same about Grameenphone's poor network show during Padma bridge inauguration.
Going by that reasoning, the SIM ban seems arbitrary and rather motivated, shows documents obtained by The Daily Star.
On April 28, a good two months before the inauguration, the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (Amtob), the trade body for carriers, sought permission from the Padma bridge authority to survey the 6.15-kilometre bridge to get an idea of the equipment needed to ensure proper service.
If adequate equipment is not installed, signal quality on the bridge is bound to be poor, as too many mobile phones would be seeking out signal from the nearby sites, Amtob said in the letter.
"The vast waterbody of Padma is a natural enemy of radio signal propagation," said Abu Saeed Khan, a noted telecom expert.
So getting signal from nearby sites would be challenging.
Subsequently, a meeting was held with the Padma bridge authority over the issue, said SM Farhad, secretary general of Amtob. "Yet, Amtob did not receive any further direction," he added.
Then on June 13, less than a fortnight before the long-awaited inauguration, BTRC instructed the operators to take permission and security clearance for installing temporary base transceiver stations and cell on wheels on both sides of the bridge.
"This is absurd and unscientific," Khan said.
The signals emitting from the existing base stations at the riverbanks are bound to interfere with the temporary base stations' coverage on the bridge.
Therefore, additional base stations are mandatory across the bridge to keep the temporary base stations' signals on track across the bridge, he said.
The security clearance came in less than a week before the inauguration and not for all the requisite equipment. The operators installed whatever they were allowed.
On June 24, the day before the inauguration, BTRC in a press release said its chairman visited the bridge to verify the network quality and the steps taken by the mobile operators to ensure quality coverage on the bridge and adjacent areas.
In short, the press release did not find any lack of preparation at the operators' end and even gave a special mention to Grameenphone's raising transmission bandwidth of 50 of its sites in the area adjacent to the Babubazar-Bhanga highway.
And yet, it was Grameenphone that was singled out for punishment.
"Grameenphone is being punished for the telecom ministry and BTRC's incompetence -- the SIM ban has exposed their lack of fundamental engineering knowledge to regulate the sector," Khan added.
The SIM ban also runs afoul of the laws of the land, according to KM Tanjib-ul-Alam, a corporate and constitutional law practitioner.
Telecom Act 2001 empowers BTRC to issue directions for corrective measures as well as certain penalties such as licence cancellation, licence suspension and an administrative fine.
But the SIM sales ban is not among the corrective measures or penalties. Neither the commission nor the ministry has the power to impose a SIM sales ban.
Besides, before initiating any corrective measure or imposing a penalty, the telecom regulator has to send a show-cause notice first. That was not issued.
"What law did they follow to make this decision? It is totally arbitrary, illegal and mollified. If Grameenphone did something unlawful, you can take them to trial. It is like giving a sentence without adjudication," Alam said.
This unusual treatment of Grameenphone, which is 55.8 percent owned by Norwegian Telenor Group, is not painting the most favourable picture of the country's business environment. The Norwegian state holds 53.97 percent stakes in Telenor.
There is a law -- The Foreign Private Investment (Promotion and Protection) Act, 1980 -- that bars "such malign acts" against foreign investors, according to Alam.
Since its inception in 1997, Grameenphone has invested Tk 41,660 crore, making it one of the largest foreign investors in Bangladesh. The operator is the largest listed company in the bourses.
"This will discourage foreign investment in the country, which is already low, to begin with," Alam added.
The SIM sales ban has been inconvenient for the sector -- and the general public, too.
In many parts of Bangladesh, Grameenphone, which has a market share of 44.8 percent, has the strongest network with the highest number of towers, so the demand for its SIM is rather robust, The Daily Star has learnt from a host of retailers.
This explains why its competitors could not close in on market share despite the SIM ban, shows BTRC's latest statistics. Robi's total subscriber count dropped between July and October, while Banglalink's saw a slight uptick. State-owned Teletalk's subscriber count saw no change.
Between July and October, the total number of mobile subscribers dropped by 23.7 lakh to 18.2 crore.
"This is curbing the freedom of choice of people -- what wrong have they done? A regulator should analyse the impacts -- social, business and others -- before taking any decision," said TIM Nurul Kabir, a former secretary general of Amtob.
The prolonged, open-ended, and arbitrary directives on the SIM sales ban not only unfairly affect customers' choices and are counter-productive to the Smart Bangladesh ambition but display an unlevel playing field and are against licensing rights, Yasir Azman, chief executive officer of Grameenphone, told The Daily Star.
Jabbar, though, is resolute, insisting that the ban was imposed for the sake of the general people as they do not get quality service.
"Grameenphone has not built up the capacity to deliver quality service to new customers," he told The Daily Star last month.
The operator's service quality continues to be "bad".
"In seven out of ten calls, I find disturbance," he said, emphasising call drops.
His grievance does have some merit, as Grameenphone users in big cities have expressed annoyance about the frequency of call drops on the network.
Sometimes, call drops for reasons beyond the operators' control, Azman said in his letter to the posts and telecommunication division and BTRC.
For surveillance and security of critical sites, devices like jammers and repeaters are being used by government agencies. This external interference upsets the signal received by a mobile phone.
The general public also uses illegal jammers in places of worship and boosters for better signal. Those also compromise the network quality.
"Our analysis pointed out that some spots (i.e. external interference, black spots) having chronic problem are responsible for multiple call drops and for that around 1.5 lakh subscribers suffer," he said, adding that the operator will reimburse free one minute for every call drop from the second instance in a day instead of the third call as being practised.
Expansion of mobile network is needed to keep pace with the rapid and uneven urbanisation around Dhaka and other mega cities but the delayed permits from government authorities and city corporations mean the operators struggle to build sites for long.
"It is important to mention that towerco regime does not permit us to build towers and we are to depend on the solutions provided by the towerco operators," Azman added.
Grameenphone will explore all available avenues to get the ban lifted, said officials of the operator on the condition of anonymity to disclose sensitive deliberations.
"I have nothing new to say on this issue -- we did it as per the ministry's instructions," Sikder told The Daily Star on Sunday.
Khandaker Anwarul Islam, who was the cabinet secretary at the time of Padma bridge inauguration, could not be reached for comment.