A standoff between mobile network operators and the Nationwide Telecommunication Transmission Network (NTTN) operators has thrown a spanner in the process of connecting fibre optic cables to mobile network sites.
Sources say the tussle is over the setting up of dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) – a technology that ties a mobile network with fibre and increases bandwidth.
Mobile operators used to set up this machine on their own from 2012 until 2019.
But NTTN operators demanded that the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) bar mobile operators from importing and setting up this machine. They also urged the regulator to empower them for this service.
Following the NTTNs' demand, the regulatory body stopped issuing no objection certificates (NOCs) to mobile operators for importing DWDM machines and their equipment.
According to industry insiders, none of the mobile operators in the country has been able to connect fibre optic cables to their networks over the last two years.
Even fibre optic leased lines remain idle, although mobile operators are incurring losses for these cables. A fibre leased line is a network connection a consumer rents from an internet service provider (ISP). Unlike a standard fibre broadband Internet connection, a leased line is a dedicated line set up to serve only a particular organisation and is therefore not shared with other users.
If this impasse lasts longer, the launch and implementation of 5G or fifth generation cellular networks will be challenging, because fibre optic bandwidth connection to all mobile network sites is the precondition to launching such a technology.
Robi Axiata Ltd, the country's second-largest mobile operator, has claimed it has been incurring a loss of Tk190 crore annually, for keeping a 1,800 km cable.
It requested the regulatory commission several times to allow it to set up DWDM machines, but the regulatory commission did not respond due to unknown reasons, according to Robi officials.
"The decision to not allow the import of DWDM equipment for more than one year has already created a huge financial burden on us. Due to shortage of DWDM equipment, we have not been able to make use of the large tranche of fibre we have leased. This is certainly having an adverse impact on the Quality of Service situation," said Shahed Alam, chief corporate and regulatory officer at Robi Axiata Ltd.
Moreover, new fibre roll-out has literally come to a halt due to equipment shortages, he said, adding, "We therefore urge the regulator to kindly break this deadlock so that we can have a robust fibre optic transmission network deliver new digital experiences in the lives of the people we serve diligently."
Complaint about 'exorbitant price'
At present, mobile operators take the fiber optic service from different NTTN operators, including Power Grid Company of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Railways, Summit Communication Ltd and Fiber@home.
All the NTTN operators have laid around 1.34 lakh kilometres of fiber optic cables across the country, of which 20,000 km have been leased to mobile operators, as noted in the BTRC's 2019-2020 report.
Mobile operators, however, are unwilling to take the services of private NTTN operators, claiming that cable careers charge 20 times higher than the state-owned PGCB, Railway and BTCL.
"Private NTTN operators lease fibre from state-owned NTTNs like railway and PGCB to provide us with the service at a higher cost. But if we lease the fibre from other state-owned entities directly, we can save on cost," said an official at Banglalink.
Rebuffing the allegation, private NTTN operators said the price rate is not irrational.
"We are responsible to provide optical fibre service to mobile operators who are supposed to take the service from us. But if they want to lease fibre on their own, then what is the use of having an NTTN licence?" said Sumon Ahmed Sabir, chief technology officer at Fiber@home, a leading NTTN operator.
Launching 5G might be a challenge
As per the 2018 election manifesto of the ruling Awami League, the government is planning to launch 5G technology at the end of this year.
But the poor optical fibre network could pose a big challenge to the implementation of 5G in the country as around 80% of mobile network sites are yet to come under this network connection.
Before launching such technology, the country should have a fibre optic network connection to 50% of its mobile telecommunication network sites.
But at present, all four mobile network operators in the country only could connect 20% of their sites with an optical fibre network.
If the network sites remain out of fibre connection, assigning an additional spectrum would not be enough to provide the expected voice, data and other telecommunication services, said insiders in the mobile network industry.