Monday 9 March 2020

Bhutan improving 2G, 3G & 4G coverage while preparing for arrival of 5G in 2022

The Kingdom of Bhutan has two mobile network operators: B-Mobile (by Bhutan Telecom, state-owned) and TashiCell (privately owned).

2G/GSM is on 900 MHz on both providers and 1800 MHz on TashiCell, 3G up to HSPA+ on 850 and 2100 MHz in the major towns only. B-Mobile has started 4G/LTE on 1800 MHz (B3) and TashiCell on 700 MHz (B28).

State-owned incumbent Bhutan Telecom Limited (BT) is the leading provider of telecommunications and internet services in the Kingdom. Besides fixed line telephony and internet services, it provides mobile services under its brand B-Mobile. It has the larger network with more users. 2G is on 900 and 1800 MHz, 3G on 850 MHz and 4G/LTE on 1800 MHz.

Bhutan Telecom has now officially launched 4G/LTE services in the towns of Thimphu, Paro, Phuentsholing, Wangdue and Punakha. Customers can convert their existing SIM to 4G free of cost. Bhutan Telecom plans to soon expand its 4G service to other Dzongkhags and Satellite towns.

Bhutan Telecom in partnership with Ericsson have successfully deployed a disaster resilient, emergency telecom core network in Bhutan as a JICA grant project.

This emergency telecom core network has been built with the objective of providing users with a seamless and uninterrupted experience, even during natural calamities. Under the JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) grant project, Ericsson has implemented disaster recovery solutions from its Digital Services portfolio to help Bhutan Telecom build this network. Ericsson solutions deployed in the network include Evolved Packet Core, Mobile Switching, OSS and BSS. This network would be helpful both in day-to-day operations as well as in enhancing the preparedness of the network to handle disaster situations.

TashiCell by Tashi InfoComm Ltd. is the only privately owned alternative. It launched in 2008 and has a market share of 30%. It has a lower coverage than B-Mobile on 2G and 3G, but they've added many new site recently. 2G is on 900 MHz, 3G on 850 MHz.

4G/LTE has been launched in 2016 on 700 MHz (band 28) which is still not so common. It's available in Thimphu, Paro and Phuntsholing and Wangdue & Punakha dzongkhag.

Bhutan’s regulator has set out its roadmap towards 5G adoption, with deployments expected to begin in 2022. Both operators are working on this roadmap and intend to start tests soon.

The Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA) has published the Regulator Framework for 5G Deployment in Bhutan. The framework advocates waiting until other markets have deployed the technology so that Bhutan is able to learn from their experiences and “take advantage of the increasingly mature 5G mobile ecosystem.”

BICMA expects to see the first commercial deployments begin in 2022 ahead of a broader rollout from 2024. The regulator has promised to encourage innovation to education around 5G technology in the market. To this end, it will grant permits for 5G research and allow operators to conduct 5G trials via the 2600MHz, 3.5GHz and 26GHz bands without paying licence or spectrum fees.

A wide range of bands are under consideration of 5G usage, including the 700MHz, 2100MHz, 2600MHz, 3.5GHz, 4.5GHz and 26GHz bands. The 2100MHz band is currently used for 3G services and BICMA expects this to be the case “until 2025 and beyond”, while the 2600MHz band is also in use for fixed-wireless broadband and multichannel multipoint distribution services.

As a result, the 3.5GHz is seen by BICMA as the “current frontrunner 5G band”. The regulator noted that the 26GHz band is also a contender but would require “wider deployment of small cells” due to its propagation nature. The 4.5GHz band is currently in use, and so would not be available for 5G purposes until all current users had been migrated – which BICMA expects would take two to four years.

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