Tuesday 14 June 2022

Iran Overcoming Barriers to Launch 4G and 5G

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s telecom infrastructure has suffered from sanctions in recent years, which prevented the import of equipment and devices and encouraged widespread smuggling, with a consequent loss of tax revenue. To address this, the government introduced a device registration scheme, and bolstered the capacity for domestically manufactured mobile phones.

Operators have invested in broadening the reach of their LTE networks, which has increased network capacity and improved the quality of mobile broadband services. The country is also looking to 5G, with services having been launched by MCI and MTN Irancell in early 2021. The sector is still hamstrung by the paucity of spectrum, though the government is addressing this with plans to auction spectrum in the 3.5GHz band for 5G use.

Iran is keen to grow its Iran’s digital economy and the National Internet Network (NIN) is pivotal to Iran’s fixed broadband infrastructure plans and overall Smart City progress.

From a broad perspective, Iran offers significant opportunities for growth in the telecoms sector. The country has one of the largest populations in the Middle East, and there is a high proportion of youthful, tech savvy users having considerable demand for both fixed and mobile telecom services.

Currently Iran has 3 major GSM operators: Hamrah-e-Aval = 'the first operator' or MCI (2G, 3G, 4G), Irancell (2G, 3G, 4G) and RighTel (3G, 4G).

With all 3 featured operators 2G/GSM is on 900 and 1800 MHz, 3G on 2100 MHz. 4G/LTE has started with Hamrah Aval, Irancell and RighTel on 1800 MHz. According to user experience the GPRS service was unreliable and download speeds pretty slow. As a general rule, 4G is available in big cities and 3G in mid-sized ones, while there's very basic coverage in rural places, if at all.

Irancell is an Iranian telecommunications company that operates Iran's largest 2G-3G-4G-4.5G-5G mobile network, and fixed wireless TD-LTE internet services. It is the first provider of 5G internet in Iran.  It is the 32nd largest company in Iran. Currently, MTN Group holds a 49% percent stake in the Irancell consortium, while Kowsar Sign Paniz (KSP) holds the other 51% of shares.

On 3 December 2014, Irancell officially launched Iran's first 4G LTE network in nine cities. The License was granted as on a national basis and includes the overall geographical coverage of Iran.
Irancell made countrywide coverage with FD-LTE and TD-LTE. As of December 2021, Irancell has 50.4 million active subscribers.

MTN Irancell has launched the country’s first commercial 5G service, though it is currently only available in one area of Tehran. The firm had previously been testing 5G services at three locations in the capital. A report from PressTV says Irancell is planning to expand network coverage to the cities of Mashhad, Shiraz and Kish ‘in the next few weeks’. Iran’s Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) recently announced plans to award 5G licences in the 3.5GHz band, while rival MNO Mobile Communication Company of Iran (MCI) is expected to announce its own commercial 5G launch in the near future.

MTN Irancell has admitted having difficulty taking money out of Iran due to the sanctions, but it says it is able to convert earnings to loans to MTN Irancell, which is allowing Iran’s second largest mobile operator to continue investment in its fixed and wireless networks.

Hamrah-e-Aval, in Farsi: همراه اول‎, in English: the first operator, is still the market leader in Iran. It is owned by the Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran, better known as MCI. In 2015 they began with their 3G network, that they call Notrino. Though being still number one in the country, they lag behind Irancell in 3G/4G coverage. In late 2015 they started with 4G too, being only available to 10% of MCI customers so far.

State-owned MCI  has expanded its 5G coverage with a launch on the island of Kish, off the coast of southern Iran. The launch coincided with the KITEX 2022 International Exhibition which has been taking place this week on the island. MCI first introduced 5G services in Tehran in March 2021.

MCI is the longest-established and biggest mobile operator in Iran, claiming some 60 million subscribers or about 71 percent of the country.

RighTel is the 3rd operator in Iran. It was granted a 3G license in 2011 and it had a monopoly on 3G 2011-2014 in the country. Rightel works great in certain parts of large cities, but has horrible (or non existent) coverage in smaller cities and many rural areas. Many people thought its prices were too high, and the speeds given were much slower than what was advertised. High speed internet also caused some cultural controversies, leading RighTel to restrict selling its SIM cards to those 18 and older.

RighTel has just over 5 million subscribers

A report from Iran’s official IRNA news agency says that more than 35,000 villages have been connected to high speed internet networks over an eight-year period under a project to improve rural services. PressTV cites IRNA as saying that 35,519 remote villages had access to broadband services as of March 2020, up from virtually zero eight years before. A further 17,000 villages have received internet access but at lower speeds. The government introduced legislation in 2017 requiring the country’s two main cellular operators, MCI and MTN Irancell, to expand their networks to more rural regions. Landline phones have reached four million households in 47,000 villages, according to the report.

Iran’s Minister of ICT says he expects the country’s National Information Network (NIN) project to be complete within four years. A report from the Financial Tribune cites Isa Zarepour as saying: ‘After around two decades of foot-dragging, it is finally time to give the initiative one last push.’ The NIN scheme was first proposed by the government in 2005, but work did not start until 2013. The aim is to establish a closed national intranet of locally made, government endorsed Islamic content, which will sit alongside the World Wide Web. Critics say, however, that the government could use it to replace the wider internet, effectively cutting off many citizens from the outside world.

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