Can 5G be the true harbinger of hope?

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From the operators’ perspective, it would require a long study to understand the impact of Third Generation (3G) and Fourth Generation (4G) mobile technology on the companies’ business and financial statements in Bangladesh, given their relatively-short time span till now. With most of the mobile phone users still using 3G, despite the widespread promotion of 4G connectivity nationwide, it remains to be seen how 5G can truly make any difference in an industry, according to one top industry insider, where only one mobile operator is running on profit.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ICT affairs adviser Sajeeb Wazed Joy had recently declared that Bangladesh will be one of the first countries in the world to deploy the 5G mobile technology in the world, while speaking at the Bangladesh 5G Summit 2018. Meanwhile, in the summit organised by the Chinese telecom vendor Huawei in association with mobile operator Robi, Huawei equipments demonstrated up to 4.17 Gbps speed for mobile network.

But doubts have been springing ever since, with industry leaders themselves considering how feasible 5G would be, given how the country is still new to 4G technology. Expressing his fear, Robi’s Managing Director and CEO Mahtab Uddin Ahmed said, “Given the fact that only one mobile operator in the country is making profit, it would certainly be difficult for the industry to convince its shareholders to invest heavily for 5G.”

Mahtab Uddin Ahmed said, “However, if the MNOs (mobile network operators), the technology vendors, the regulator and the government come together, I am sure we can find an amicable pathway towards the implementation of 5G in Bangladesh.” The successful 5G trial creates the perfect backdrop to begin the dialogue in this regard, he added.

“We will invite consultants from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) soon for taking advice to introduce 5G,” BTRC Chairman Dr Shahjahan Mahmood said. South Korea has introduced the 5G technology on a limited scale while the US will launch this next-generation service soon, he said. After the launching of 4G at the end of February this year, BTRC gave the mobile operators 36 months for 4G rollout across the country.

Telecom expert Ashraf H Chowdhury said the regulatory body should introduce tough penalty to ensure the quality of 4G services. “The fourth-generation (4G) or fifth generation (5G) services will not make any difference if service quality cannot be ensured and the issue of frequent call drops is not addressed,” he said.

When handing over 4G licences, he had said Bangladesh would lag behind if it did not adopt new technologies. “Many are questioning why 4G is being introduced when the country is yet fully come under 3G coverage. I will tell them that we will move on to 5G. There is no option to avoid technology,” he added.

For 4G services, BTRC accumulated 46.4 Megahertz (MHz) of spectrum for sale in the auction, but two operators collected 15.6 MHz while two others left out themselves from the auction.

Even Telecom and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar said: “The world will embrace 5G in 2020. So, we too will have to accept new technology and must move on to 5G. There is no option for procrastination.” But he dubbed moving on to 5G in 2020 an ambitious dream. “It will be a challenge for us,” he said. After its introduction, all technologies, goods and services will become 5G-based, the minister said, adding that there should be more thoughts regarding these things. He said technology was ever changing. Before adopting a new technology we have to decide how it will benefit us and if it is compatible with the socio-economic condition and then take necessary preparations.

How great is 5G?

5G, the next generation wireless technology promises to go beyond phones and link up everything from vehicles to household devices, or anything else with an internet connection at far greater speeds. Unlike 2G, 3G and 4G that focused on mobile phones, the promoters of 5G say it offers faster, more stable connections for cars, homes, factories and offices.

The first generation, retroactively called 1G, was a fully analog system for transmitting voice. In contrast, 2G phones transmitted voice and data digitally. Subsequent generations, 3G in 2000 and 4G in 2010, made technical improvements that brought data rates up from 200 kilobits per second to hundreds of megabits per second. With 2020 approaching, 5G is expected to transmit 1 gigabit per second – and perhaps as many as 10.

Being able to send and receive that much data so quickly opens new opportunities for augmented and virtual reality systems, as well as automation. For instance, self-driving cars could communicate with each other, road signs, traffic signals, guard rails and other elements human drivers simply see. That would require an additional technical leap – reducing what is called “latency,” or the delay between when a signal is sent and when it’s received, to 1 millisecond.

In India, a 5G demonstration was organised recently by Ericsson at IIT Delhi, where it was showed how G connectivity will be used in emerging technologies like mixed reality, developing smart cities, smart agriculture and most importantly Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

A small demonstration of 5G in smart cities showed its usage in checking traffic of an area. With 5G real-time traffic will be faster and easier to track. It will also show detailed information on the kind and number of vehicles located in an area.

5G connectivity was demoed in a situation where a surgery teaching was being performed in virtual reality along with haptic feedback. While the technology can help industries like healthcare, the technology paves way for real-time transfer of high-resolution data, like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.

Back from the reverie

Former president of BASIS Habibullah N Karim said that while many believe that information technologies in general, and internet in particular, have democratised and decentralised access to information, these have created their own kind of haves and have-nots based on the extent of internet/telecom infrastructure and digital literacy prevalent in each country. In Bangladesh for example, even though 70 percent of the people carry mobile phones that potentially could be connected to the Net, the reality is that our overall literacy is around 72 percent and that too mostly in our own language Bangla. In the absence of adequate internet content in Bangla, the lion’s share of the “literate” people really don’t have much use for internet today.

“In fact we are a bit luckier in the sense that Bangladesh’s topographical homogeneity by and large and small footprint geographically make it far easier to envelope the whole country in a web of telecom towers allowing almost universal coverage for internet. Our biggest bane as a nation—our lack of land area—is also our boon when it comes to internet coverage. Many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are not as lucky where vast tracts of inhospitable lands—deserts, mountains and forests—make for very cumbersome and expensive rollout of internet service.”

Even after all this, an April GSMA report stated that Bangladesh, along with Pakistan, has the lowest level of mobile internet penetration in the Asia Pacific region. Only 21 percent of the population of both Bangladesh and Pakistan have mobile internet connection -- the lowest among regional peers. Even countries like Nepal and Myanmar, both of which have lower GDP per capita than Bangladesh, have higher mobile internet penetration: 28 percent and 35 percent respectively. The majority of subscribers in Bangladesh primarily use their phones for basic voice and SMS services, the report said.

The country seems to be stuck by the revolution that was caused during the introduction of 3G, according to telecom insiders. The biggest change brought by 3G is in people’s lifestyle. “A smartphone with a mobile connection is more than just a phone; its part of one’s lifestyle,” said one official working in the industry.

Another aspect of communication that had been heavily influenced by 3G is mobile video calling. Because of the existence of a substantial Bangladeshi population in other countries, this service was embraced by a big chunk of the population. “There is at least one family member in every family or in their extended family who is studying in a foreign country. Not only that, there was a time when people used to travel to other countries once every five years, which has now increased to once every year. This higher mobility among the people has created a different kind of demand for mobile services,” said one official.

The use of social media is another aspect that has seen a boom since the introduction of 3G. There is an increased amount of data sharing among the people which were not possible in the 2G days. Photo and video sharing has become a daily phenomenon. Such sharing has also pushed the boundaries of journalism with live streaming video and what not.

There is a debate as to what extent 3G services can possibly be developed in Bangladesh. “Using a mobile is a thing that people are always fascinated about. Can you show a single housemaid today who can’t operate a mobile phone? They can’t yet operate a smartphone, but they can probably understand what happens when a coloured picture is pushed. I don’t think it is impossible to think that they would surprise you if they get a couple of days with a smart-phone. Because this doesn’t require a person to learn ABCD or rocket science,” said one official working in the industry.

3G has made the market even more competitive. “During the 2G days, competition was in voice calls only. Now data services are within the realms of competition,” said one official. “Just imagine the day when 3G was being promoted for the first time. One of the operators said ‘3G’, another said ‘3.5G’, yet another said ‘3.9G’. From the very first day of 3G, the effort was on to gain a competitive advantage,” said another official. Every single day, the technology pages of newspapers contain some sort of offers from telecom service providers. Previously, during the days of 2G, differentiation was created only with price and usage offers, but now along with price, offer dynamisms have come up strongly, as there is lesser strain on net speed. Industry players see even more competitiveness in the market in the coming days.

From its inception, the cost of 3G and 4G services was discussed very frequently. Even though some of that cost was to be borne by the operators, others were to be borne by the consumers. The consumer-end cost revolved around handsets while adopting the technology for the time. Operators think that one of the major barriers of 3G was the price of 3G compatible handsets (subsequently the same in the case of 4G). At the initial state, less than 10% handsets in the Bangladeshi market were 3G compatible. This was overcome by some handset manufacturers who have started to come up with handsets cheap enough for most people. The service aspect of price control was achieved through already existing competitiveness in the mobile phone sector.

Licensing and renewals are some of the big decisions in the mobile industry. In fact, these are so big with such investment requirements, that these are not even in the realms of the local representatives of the telecom operators. These investment decisions are discussed by the group-level representatives of the companies. They maintain contact with government representatives, that is, Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC). Upgrading to the next level of technology would require operators to understand the required amount of investment, the readiness of the market to adopt new technology and their willingness to pay for it, the possible impact on revenue streams, etc. Companies need to develop products based on the next level of technology that would help people in their day to day lives, thereby giving them value and generating revenue for the companies. And ultimately how much the people would pay for the services and whether that would be enough to cover the cost of investment, would indicate towards the justification of the promotion to the next level.

Industry concerned say that the cost increase between 2G and 3G was not that much, which means the industry had benefited from cost point of view, which ultimately helped the consumers. “You can compare the cost of services before and after 3G. The operators have provided the services almost at the rate of 2G. I doubt how many countries in the world provide 3G services at this cost. And in terms of voice call rate, we are already the cheapest country in the world,” said one official. He thinks that the local regulatory bodies did a good job. They have helped a healthy competition in the market. He thinks that if the regulators relax some of the rules and reduce licensing fees somewhat, the end users would be able to avail the services at a cheaper rate. Operators would also want the lowest cost on their part, as that increases profit for the companies and the companies are here to do business. But probably the regulators have done their own calculations and have also thought about the country. He does not think that the regulators would do something that would go against the interests of the country.

The pace of change in this era of technology is tremendous. As one of the officials in the industry mentioned, “If you thought about something just six months back, it’s already happening today.” It’s not that we have to invent new kinds of services all the time. Sometimes, it is even possible to import and idea from another country and simply try it out in this market. Copying ideas are much easier today because the platform can support the implementation of the ideas. According to the operators, regulators are already thinking about 5G, and it can arrive any time soon enough. It all now depends on the assessment of the regulators.

  • Issue 4
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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