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Dhaka Tribune

Faster site acquisition can help connect the unconnected

How mobile network expansion can help build a Smart Bangladesh

Update : 23 Jun 2023, 01:22 AM

Mobile network and internet access have expanded scopes to connect the unconnected to further opportunities in all areas -- importantly education, healthcare, safety, security, driving business -- ultimately helping people to progress towards a smart society. However, many parts of the nation still lack the basic connectivity, hence requires an expansion of mobile network.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, as a nation, Bangladesh was able to maneuver the challenge of life and death through proper planning and timely steps by the government, where mobile connectivity played a pivotal role in remaining connected while in physical isolation.

The connectivity helped running the day-to-day businesses, healthcare, and education at some scale. It has also been observed that a large quarter of our population have limited access to the related amenities, that means the digital divide was clearly visible in the society.

A major step to close the digital divide would be a strong collective effort to address people's barriers to using mobile phone and accessing to internet.

According to a report by the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA), about half of Bangladesh's population (55% unique-subscriber penetration) remains unconnected to a mobile network, and only 31% of the population uses mobile internet services. These percentages are lower than the average in South Asia. Still, millions of people need to be connected and must gain access to the network. In parallel, the mobile network needs to be optimized in terms of quality and services in a sustainable manner.

Evidence shows that Bangladesh's continued economic success stories strongly tie to mobile telecom connectivity. Our government has taken a timely step to transform the country through the logical next step of Digital Bangladesh. The nation has embarked on the journey towards a Smart Bangladesh where a fast, dependable, and uninterrupted mobile network ecosystem across the country is now essential.

It is noteworthy that Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) established the tower sharing guideline in September 2008, followed by the TowerCo (Telecom Infrastructure Company) licensing in April 2018. This was for sharing infrastructure with multiple mobile network operators (MNOs) such as Grameenphone, Robi, or Banglalink instead of cluttering spaces with too many individual sites.

Following the guidelines, the leading TowerCo  EDOTCO and others have been contributing towards achieving that goal by maximizing the use of multiple MNOs at a single site where possible. Unfortunately, today, the establishment of mobile infrastructure sites faces multidimensional challenges, including convincing people to lease space especially in urban areas; in many cases, getting approval from government bodies, private organizations, and local authorities and communities is also required.  It means that acquiring sites is one of the most critical tasks  in the process of expanding the mobile telecom network.

Understandably, the socio-economic development of the country has made the leasing of space for a site more challenging on some scale. These days, many land or building owners find it is less attractive financially, or the exorbitant rent expectations take away the economic viability of building a site on a specific location. In addition, acquiring sites that require approval from the government authorities could be complex and bureaucratic due to the involvement of multiple authorities and stakeholders.

In some instances, no proper guidelines or known policy outline exists for such approval processes, which significantly delays the acquisitions, hence, the rollouts of such sites and, ultimately, impacting the whole connectivity expansion process across the country. In some cases, no proper guidelines or known policy outline exists for such approval processes, which significantly delays the acquisitions, hence, the rollouts of such sites and, ultimately, impacting the whole connectivity expansion process across the country.

A specific site location is of utmost importance in terms of capacity or coverage for a telecom network. Other challenges are also associated with the total process beside bureaucratic delays. Some locations are inherently sensitive due to their operational nature. Educational institutes, military or religious establishments, private or government real estate projects, and other government or non-government establishments are the types of locations that require obtaining authorities' approvals.

To provide some perspective, EDOTCO, the leading regional integrated telecommunications infrastructure services company, currently operates approximately over 17,000 sites across the country. Many of these sites required more than six months to get approved, and in some cases, the approval duration was extended more than years or even took multi-year endeavors. The lengthy approval process delayed the site accusation process and impacted the adjoining population's connectivity.

One of the major impacted localities involves "khas land," the land owned and managed by the government. Any site that requires to be installed on such land simply becomes a lengthy ordeal, mostly due to the absence of a policy or guideline regarding the utilization of "khas land" for the purpose of telecommunication establishments. This creates a complicated situation for network expansion. By understanding the realities on the ground, a comprehensive guideline can lead to better results in achieving network expansion goals.

Another critical factor that negatively impacts the expansion of mobile networks is the perception of emitting radiation and its impact on public health. Some quarter of people or communities lack proper knowledge and/or available misinformation that towers emit harmful radiation, affecting humans and the entire ecology. They tend to act as the inhibitors against the network expansion in their localities. Ironically, the likelihood of shunning a mobile phone on the ground of radiation by the same people would almost be zero.

The relevant global organizations, such as, International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation protection (ICNIR), World Health Organization (WHO), and international telecommunication union (ITU) have provided the standardized procedures to measure radiation emitted from mobile towers, and its acceptable limit. Using the established guidelines, BTRC conducts a nationwide radiation inspection drive regularly based on these procedures to monitor the effect of tower operation on the environment.

The latest inspection report indicates that the radiation level at the sample sites is far below the established benchmark for harmful effects. Although this situation isn't unique in the case of Bangladesh, this is not helping especially when we have an extremely dense population with limited space for infrastructure.

To understand the gravity of this challenge, there are even cases where mobile towers couldn't be installed even after the approval from the government bodies due to community resistance.

The telecommunication industry can thrive by collaborating with relevant authorities. Awareness and due diligence can help us find solutions to the challenges stated above and identify common ground for sustainable solutions. Understandably, the relevant government authorities and regulatory bodies could play a more active and significant role in accelerating faster network expansion in the country by establishing guidelines and policies that streamline the approval process for acquiring sites. Better alignment and collaboration among authorities can create a more efficient and faster process for acquiring sites, bringing more people into the digital age, and creating a more connected Bangladesh.

It's a fact that globally mobile connectivity is a major driver of economic growth across all sectors. According to the international telecommunication union (ITU), a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration in Asia would result in a 0.51% to 2.43% increase in GDP per capita, with the highest impact observed in developing countries.

Consequently, the telecom industry in general as well as EDOTCO, the pioneer TowerCo, will continue to play their parts to achieve the vision of smart Bangladesh. However, to bring greater public benefits in terms of connectivity, it requires targeted action by all stakeholders, including mobile operators, policymakers, government, and the broader private sector, to overcome the present scenario. 

In a nutshell, we can examine a few facts towards achieving  the vision of a smart Bangladesh by expanding the network to the unconnected:

  • Concerted efforts delivered holistically by all stakeholders, government bodies, concerned entities, related people on the ground, subscribers, etc
  • Rendering of support by public representatives, law enforcement agencies, etc
  • A sustainable strategy, policies, and fast-hand directives would help to ease the overall process
  • Mainstream and social media campaign for making people aware of the vision of Smart Bangladesh linked to mobile connectivity in totality, countering misinformation about the radiation impact on the human body and ecosystem
  • Reducing prolonged process and delay in getting the official works done by related government, semi-government, and private bodies as required
  • Similar to the power transmission and distribution installations, a clear guideline and right of way should be defined for telecom sites

We must acknowledge that a faster site acquisition is fundamental to connecting the unconnected to access further opportunities. Furthermore, addressing the challenges, streamlining the approval process, collaborating with government and private bodies, and fostering awareness and trust among societies make site acquisition hassle-free and target oriented to accelerate mobile network expansion, paving the path for a Smart Bangladesh.

Dr Sabbir Ahmad is the Director, Engineering of EDOTCO Bangladesh.

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