Crores of mobile phone users can brace themselves for poorer network quality as the carriers and tower licence holders have failed to get on the same page seven months into the new arrangement.
With a view to rationalising the number of towers in the country and giving smaller operators a fair shot, the government last year decided to separate the network business from telecom services.
And in October last year, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission awarded the licences for tower operation to four companies: edotco Bangladesh, Summit Tower Limited, Kirtonkhola Tower Bangladesh and AB Hightech Consortium.
The four companies were supposed to take over the towers from the mobile operators and also build new ones.
But they have been unable to do either seven months since getting their licences, leaving the mobile operators in limbo.
Since the awarding of tower licences in October, the mobile operators were forbidden from setting up any new towers of their own as this exercise would be taken over by the four new tower companies.
But, three of the four tower licence holders have failed to start their operations within the deadline of May 1, meaning virtually no new towers were set up in the country in the past seven months amidst a fast-growing demand.
The mobile operators have called for 3,000 new sites from the telecom regulator to alleviate the strain on their network.
At the same time, the process of acquiring the mobile operators’ existing towers is stalling as the carriers are not happy with the terms and conditions being offered by the tower licences holders.
One of their major bone of contention is the duration for which the towers are guaranteed to be functional.
At present, the mobile operators keep the towers running for at least 99.50 percent of the time, whereas the licence holders are promising 98 percent of the time.
This is not acceptable by the mobile operators as it would invariably lead to a noticeable drop in their service quality.
Not only that, the tower companies are not promising prompt action in getting the towers up and running again in case of disruptions.
It takes the mobile operators at most 48 hours to make their towers working again, but the tower companies’ response time would be much slower than the current situations.
The operators also have an issue with lease contract of the towers.
The tower companies want to lease out the sites for 15 years, which the mobile operator balked at.
“None can assure this business model will continue until that time, so how can we sign a deal with a validity of one and half decade?” said a top official of a mobile operator requesting anonymity.
Bafflingly, the telecom regulator is siding with the tower licence holders and is insisting the carriers go with what is being offered to them.
Banglalink termed the situation as dire.
If the current situation persists, more customers will be heavily affected in the days to come, said Taimur Rahman, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer of Banglalink.
Grameenphone echoed the same fears. “There is no real assurance of service quality for mobile users as there is no commitment from the tower companies about quality,” it said in a statement to The Daily Star.
The Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (AMTOB) also had a number of sessions with the regulator and tower companies over the issues, according to SM Farhad, its secretary general.
“But still there are differences,” he added.
Imran Karim, owner of Kirtonkhola Tower, however played down the fears of any lasting deterioration in service quality.
“It is true that there will be some problems on service quality in the short-term but that will not be as intensive as what the mobile operators are saying.”
He went on to express hope that all issues would be solved over the next few months.
Contacted, BTRC Chairman Md Jahurul Haque declined to go into any detail on the matter.
But to mitigate the current network congestions, it might allow the mobile operators to import equipment to maintain their towers.
“The problem between the mobile operators and the tower companies will need more time to be resolved,” he added. At present, Grameenphone owns 14,000 towers, Banglalink 9,000 and state-owned Teletalk 3,700.
Robi is now left with 1,500 towers after it transferred the ownership of about 8,000 towers to its sister concern edotco, one of the four tower licence holders.