Frequent call drops, low Internet speed, poor quality of voice calls, and delayed call setup – these are some commonplace as well as long-standing complaints of mobile phone users in the country.
The pathetic condition of mobile Internet speed in Bangladesh is also depicted in various global indices. For example, the Ookla Speedtest Global Index for December 2021 ranked Bangladesh 128th out of 138 countries for mobile broadband speed, while a number of countries with poorer economic situations, such as Uganda and Libya, were ranked well ahead of Bangladesh.
Now, the High Court has stepped in to help provide a long-overdue solution to problems faced by the country's mobile Internet users – especially in this pandemic time when millions have come to rely on their smartphones as a quick means of accessing the Internet.
In an order issued on Sunday, the apex court directed the mobile network operators in the country to take speedy action to ensure advance, clear voice call, and stable mobile and fastest Internet network to the customers.
The court at the same time formed a five-member supervisory committee to monitor the functions of the complaint cell of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) for speedy solution of mobile network and mobile Internet related issues, and customer complaints.
The committee – comprising the posts and telecommunications secretary, the information and broadcasting secretary, and the BTRC chairman, a teacher from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, and a representative of the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (AMTOB) – has been asked to submit a report within 30 days of receiving the court order.
The High Court bench of Justice Mamnoon Rahman and Justice Khondekar Diliruzzaman passed the order with a rule on Sunday after a preliminary hearing of a writ petition filed in the public interest by Supreme Court lawyer Saifur Rahman Rahi.
Barrister MA Masum appeared in the hearing on behalf of the petitioner, while deputy attorney general Bepul Bagmar represented the state.
Masum told reporters that the committee would report on the number of complaints, the amount settled and the speedy disposal of unresolved complaints. The committee will also monitor the settlement of grievances and make a comprehensive recommendation on what steps can be taken to ensure improved, crystal clear voice calls, and a stable mobile and high speed Internet network.
In the rule the High Court wanted to know from the respondents to explain in four weeks as to why the inaction of them in ensuring crystal clear voice all, fast Internet service and stable network should not be declared illegal and as to why the respondents should not be directed to remove any limitation of period in data pack service allowing the subscribers to use the purchased data until full consumption.
The posts and telecommunications secretary, the BTRC chairman, Grameenphone's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Yasir Azman, Robi's CEO Mahtab Uddin Ahmed, Banglalink's Chief Executive Officer Erik Aas and Teletalk's CEO Md Shahab Uddin and three other respondents have been asked to comply with the rule within four weeks.
Petitioner Saifur Rahman Rahi who is a subscriber to all of the four mobile network operators in the country filed complaints to the BTRC on 5 January this year against call drop, weak network and limitation of period in data pack service. As he didn't get any solution from the BTRC, he sent legal notice on 10 January to the respondents.
But without getting any response from the respondents, he filed a writ petition with the High Court last week seeking rules and directions.
Lawyer Masum told the media that mobile phone users suffer the most because of low-quality voice call service, poor Internet speed, and unstable network connections.
He elaborated on the problems citing their own experience. "During the pandemic situation, when the hon'ble court was functioning virtually and even now at times, network signals got too low within the Supreme Court premises and no one could make any phone calls or connect to the Internet."
Even students, teachers from around the country, faced trouble participating in the virtual classes, he said, adding these issues have been getting worse day by day, with no tangible improvement in sight.
"The complainant cell of the BTRC is receiving complaints from the customers. But there are doubts as to whether that cell is functioning properly. If it worked properly, these mobile subscribers would not have any suffering. That is why we filed the writ petition," added Masum.
Meanwhile, customers' complaints with the regulatory authorities over telecom services are even on the rise, but the rate of complaint settlement remains low.
Some 21,850 complaints were logged with the BTRC in 2021 whereas the number was only 12,832 in 2020, official data show.
Of the total complaints lodged last year, only 64% could be resolved by the BTRC.
Asked, BTRC Vice Chairman Subrata Roy Maitra said they have heard about the High Court order and that they will take required action once the court order reaches their hand.
Mentioning that the number of base transceiver stations connected with fibre optic cables in Bangladesh is far below the regional standard, Abu Saeed Khan, a telecom expert and Senior Policy Fellow at LIRNEasia – a ICT think tank based in Sri Lanka, however, said unless the base transceiver stations are connected with fibre optic cables, the service quality can never improve.
"The overall quality of telecom services is bound to be substandard, as the BTRC has banned the mobile operators from using optical fiber infrastructure in their network stations," he observed.
Business swell, not services
Telecommunication service providers in Bangladesh have seen a huge surge in their business in terms of both revenue and number of consumers.
The industry has received 1.59 crore new mobile phone subscribers since the pandemic hit the country in March 2020.
In 2019, the number of mobile phone subscribers in Bangladesh was 16.55 crore, which jumped to 18.15 crore in November 2021.
In line with the growth in number of subscribers, the revenue of the mobile network operators also saw massive growth.
Grameenphone, the largest mobile operator in the country registered a revenue of Tk10,479.7 crore in the first nine months of 2020. In the same period of 2021, its total revenue climbed to Tk10,678.5 crore.
The other two private mobile operators also recorded growth in revenue.
In the first nine months of 2020, Robi Axiata Limited earned Tk5,644.1 crore in revenue, which jumped to Tk6,096.8 crore in the corresponding period of the following year.
Banglalink, the third largest mobile operator in the country, saw its revenue grow to Tk3,564.4 crore in January-September last year, up from Tk3,424 crore in the same period a year ago.
Operators fail to meet local standard of speed
According to Ookla Speedtest Global Index for December 2021, Bangladesh ranks 128th for mobile Internet and 94th for fixed broadband on the speed testing index.
The poor state of the mobile Internet speed in the country is also depicted in the BTRC's recent Quality of Service (QoS) report where none of the operator's Internet download and upload speed was found to match the standard.
Most of the operators were found non-compliant to meet the BTRC's benchmark in providing fourth generation (4G) Internet services.
Last week, the BTRC revealed the QoS report of Rangpur Division, where three out of four mobile operators in the country were found non-compliant in supplying minimum 4G speed.
Market leader Grammenphone along with Banglalink and state-owned Teletalk failed to meet the 4G speed benchmark in the division.
In Sylhet and Rajshahi divisions, all the mobile operators, except Banglalink, were found to be providing lower speed of the 4G compared to the local benchmark.