Monday 17 October 2022

Malaysia is a Land of Competition with Plenty of Mobile Networks to Choose from

As part of a diverse range of initiatives designed to move the country from developing to developed status by 2025, Malaysia has enabled and encouraged open competition in its telecommunications market. The result is very high penetration levels in both the mobile (147%) and mobile broadband (127%) segments, and near-universal coverage of 4G LTE networks. The incumbent landline operator Telekom Malaysia retains an almost monopolistic hold on the fixed-line market as well as a significant lead in fixed broadband. But even here, steady growth is occurring as more fibre optic cable networks are being deployed around the country on top of Telekom Malaysia’s national backbone.

Consumers are the main beneficiaries of the highly competitive market. They enjoy widespread access to high-speed mobile services as well as attractive offers on bundles to keep data use up but prices low. The downside is that most of Malaysia’s MNOs and MVNOs have struggled to increase revenue in line with growth in subscriber numbers as well as demand for broadband data. While the operators have been very successful in moving a significant proportion (now over 30%) of customers from prepaid over to higher-value postpaid accounts, ARPU continues to fall year after year as a result of competitive pricing pressures. 

Meanwhile, all eyes are on the government’s next move to encourage the private mobile operators to sign up to the country’s wholesale 5G network being built by Ericsson for the government-owned and operated Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB). This special-purpose vehicle company was established by the Ministry of Finance to undertake the development and deployment of Malaysia’s 5G infrastructure across the country. The government’s stated intent was to avoid duplication of networks and infrastructure, and thus reduce investment costs for the operators. But with DNB being Malaysia’s single wholesale 5G network provider, the MNOs have been reluctant to commit due to having limited opportunity to differentiate their 5G services and being somewhat at the mercy of the wholesaler’s pricing. To date, no MNO has agreed to the deal and are instead demanding the development of a dual wholesale network model (one that no doubt offers more flexible terms, at least in the eyes of the MNOs). Malaysia’s 5G rollout has, in effect, come to a standstill while the government tries to find a way to restart negotiations.

In the most recent Open Signal report on Malaysia, the mobile network experience of users in Malaysia across six major networks is analysed: Celcom, Digi, Maxis, U Mobile, Unifi and Yes, over the period of 90 days between June 1, 2022, and August 29, 2022, to see how they stack up on different aspects of mobile experience. 5G measurements contribute to the overall experience scores. In addition to the national analysis, the mobile network experience across Malaysia's major provinces is examined .

Open Signal saw mixed fortunes, with each of the six operators winning at least one award category outright. Digi and Maxis take home the largest share of awards. While Digi is the outright winner of the Download Speed Experience and Excellent Consistent Quality awards, Maxis wins Games Experience outright and is a joint winner in a further two categories — with Digi in Video Experience and with U Mobile in Voice App Experience. U Mobile is next on the list as it wins the Upload Speed Experience award. Meanwhile, Celcom reigns supreme on 4G Coverage Experience, Yes is top for Availability and Unifi leads in Core Consistent Quality. Overall, these results highlight the importance of measuring multiple factors that contribute to a good mobile network experience rather than just focusing on speed.

Celcom claims to be the largest private mobile network operator with over 14 million users on its 2G and 4G networks. At the moment, the operator says it has 96.21% 4G population coverage nationwide and has invested over RM1 billion into its 4G network in the past 18 months. As shared during its recent H1 2022 report, the average data consumption by Celcom customers is 24.2GB per month.

Celcom has started its friendly 5G user trials with selected customers. Eligible Celcom customers will be able to access 5G for free until further notice and will also get to access 5G roaming in 15 countries.

Plans for a merger of Celcom and Digi were first confirmed back in June 2021, with a formal application for the merger subsequently lodged with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in November 2021. With the local telecoms regulator having confirmed its approval for the deal in June 2022, it was noted that this was subject to a number of undertakings that the two operators had submitted after the MCMC in April 2022 raised potential issues that could arise from the tie-up. Upon completion, Axiata and Telenor will each hold equal ownership of 33.1% in the new merged company, which will be named Celcom Digi Berhad and will continue to be listed on Bursa Malaysia.

Maxis is the first operator in Malaysia to provide its customers with 5G international roaming services in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. The 5G roaming service will be activated automatically on any 5G-enabled device.

The DNB was set up last year by the Malaysian government to speed up the deployment of 5G services across the country.

The new company has sought to partner with all six of the main operators in the country -- Maxis, U Mobile, Telekom Malaysia, YTL Communications, Celcom Axiata, and DiGi, and all take equity stakes in a state-controlled 5G single wholesale network run by the DNB.

All six of the operators agreed to the proposals last month, after being offered a combined 70 percent stake in DNB, dependent on all six operators agreeing to the terms. However Maxis and U Mobile pulled out at the last minute, as neither saw benefits to the agreement, although both 'want to remain in talks for access to DNB's 5G network'.

Operators have been sceptical of the proposals put forward by the DNB, with many initially reluctant to agree to the plans, but the DNB has insisted its 5G strategy will keep costs lower and speed up the deployment of 5G services in the country, which has faced regular delays.

The DNB says the rollout will cost RM16.5 billion ($3.7bn) for the next decade, with Ericsson selected as the network equipment provider.

In their quest to become Malaysia’s preferred digital operator, U Mobile have introduced many first-of-its-kind digital services to the market such as telco assurance products. U Mobile also has a comprehensive fintech ecosystem offering that consists of GoPayz, a universal e-wallet which offers consumers digital financial and lifestyle services, and GoBiz, a digital payment acceptance solution designed for businesses both big and small.

Being the youngest telco also means U Mobile has the most modern network infrastructure that enables us to scale up based on demand in the most efficient way. Our award-winning robust network is also ready for 5G and beyond and they are committed to continue investing in our network so that our customers will always enjoy a superior network experience.

U Mobile is the first operator to offer a massive 1,000GB (1TB) of high-speed 4G/5G-ready data with its new U Postpaid 98. Customers are able to experience true worry-free connectivity at just RM98. U Postpaid 98 customers can also share their huge 1,000GB of high-speed data and unlimited calls with up to 6 family members for only RM38 per line, making it the most unbeatable family option in the market today. Customers shopping for a new 5G device also have the option of getting the device on instalment with 0% monthly interest via U Mobile’s U PayLater, or with U SaveMore, which offers more savings on device.

In 2016, Telekom Malaysia and P1 now called Webe officially launched after its predecessor, TMgo, based on 4G/LTE-only running at 850 MHz (band 5) as well as TD-LTE bands 38 and 40 that are able to deliver download speeds up to 20 Mbps. This was closed later and relaunched as 'unifi Mobile' with 3G roaming included.

Yes by YTL Corporation started in 2010 and now covers more than 85% of population by 4G/LTE only on the West Malaysian Peninsula, but are rolling out networks in major cities in Sabah and Sarawak. Yes currently running on FD-LTE and TD-LTE on 800 MHz (Band 20), 2300 MHz (Band 38) and 2600 MHz (Band 40). 

When it comes to coverage, Yes is awarded the best for availability with users connected to 4G and above 98.8% of the time. At the moment, Yes is also the first and only telco to offer 5G coverage via Digital Nasional Berhad. This is followed closely behind by U Mobile at 98%, Maxis at 96.7%, Digi at 96.1%, Celcom at 96% and Unifi Mobile at 95%. Opensignal has stated that the availability metric is not a measure of a network’s geographical extent and it shouldn’t be used as an indicator if you are likely to get a signal if you visit a remote rural or uninhabited region.

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Wednesday 12 October 2022

Belarus 'Ready' to Deploy 5G Technology

Belarus’s government and telecom regulator are concluding three major programs aimed at developing the telecom sector and digital economy. Major progress has been made, in particular enabling the mobile network operators to trial 5G services and extending the reach of fibre infrastructure.

These programs were initiated in 2015 and 2016 while the country experienced declining economic growth and formed part of wider efforts to develop the economy through promoting the digital economy and developing the ICT sector. Such considerations have also encompassed a growing interest in applications relevant for smart cities.

Following the political turmoil of mid-2020 the local currency has depreciated against the US dollar and the euro, and this has placed greater strain on operator revenue.

The mobile sector has also experienced some growth, with a rise in mobile penetration attributed to effective competition which has helped drive down consumer prices. Operators have concentrated on developing mobile broadband and data services with a view to capitalising on such services to increase ARPU.

Recent spectrum auctions have facilitated the development of mobile broadband access, particularly in rural areas, while the state-sponsored operator beCloud, charged with developing a wholesale-based LTE network, has enabled commercial LTE services to be extended to about 80% of the population. beCloud is also charged with developing the network infrastructure to support 5G services. It is undergoing the process using spectrum in three bands.

These mobile networks are operating in Belarus in 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE: MTS [МТС] (owned by Beltelecom & MTS Russia), A1 (formerly Velcom, owned by A1 Telekom Austria Group), Life:) (mostly owned by Turkcell) for 4G/LTE: beCloud (partly state-owned, providing only 4G/LTE, for all providers above)

Many people in Belarus carry two mobiles, one with an MTS and the other with a A1 SIM card to avoid paying for more expensive cross-network calls. Life is in 3rd place with a lower coverage but very good prices.

2G is on 900 and 1800 MHz, 3G on 900 and 2100 MHz. In 2016 the two major operators cover 53%, which has been extended to more than 97% in the meantime.

4G/LTE has started in 2015. A 4th state-owned provider called beCloud had a monopoly license for 15 years and is building up the 4G/LTE network on 800, 1800 and 2600 MHz (bands 3, 7 and 20), which is marketed by the private operators. MTS has been launching its 4G/LTE marketing in 2015, life:) followed in 2016 and A1 in 2019.

MTS (or МТС in Belarusian for "Мабільныя ТэлеСістэмы") is a joint venture co-owned by state owned Beltelecom and Russian owned MTS operator and is the leading provider in Belarus. Its network coverage is 98% on 2G and 95% on 3G.

As part of its ongoing 4G LTE rollout, MTS Belarus is extending LTE-800 coverage to the Brest region, targeting more than 130 settlements, including rural areas. The deployment will be carried out in stages it said with the initial phase taking in the settlements of Brest, Baranovichi, Drogichinsky, Kobrinsky, Luninets, Ivanovsky, Pruzhany, Kamenetsky and other areas. In a recent press release, the MNO highlighted that the launch and development of LTE-800 in rural areas is being implemented jointly with infrastructure partner Belarusian Cloud Technologies (beCloud).

MTS Belarus said its LTE-800 network covers ‘thousands of settlements’ across Belarus. Previously, it was launched in Vitebsk, Gomel, Mogilev and Minsk regions. In fiscal 2022, it plans to provide dense 4G coverage to the western regions of the country – e.g. the Brest and Grodno regions.

A1 is the strongest competitor of MTS in Belarus with almost the same 2G/3G coverage. About 76% of the population are covered by 4G/LTE in 2020. It was called Velcom before.

In 2019 A1 finally announced the launch of 4G/LTE services in the city of Minsk and parts of the Minsk region, using the common infrastructure of national LTE access provider beCloud. Coming more than three years after rivals MTS and life.

beCloud and A1 Belarus have collaborated to expand coverage of 4G LTE in the Vitebsk region by ‘almost seven times’, blanketing more than 5,200 settlements in the process. In a press release, beCloud confirmed that mobile internet services using LTE-800 technology are now available in more than 75% of the region’s territory, including rural areas where more than 98% of its population lives. During the deployment, more than 200 base stations operating in the 800MHz band were installed in the region to provide wide geographical coverage and reliable signal reception in rural areas.

Turkish owned life:) is the smallest operator in Belarus. Its 3G is still more limited to population centers as the 900 MHz frequency is not yet employed. Where available, they give data at much better rates, but at a lower coverage.

life:), has announced that following the latest improvements to its network, a further 59 4G LTE base transceiver stations (BTS) have been launched throughout the country. In extending the reach of its 4G network the MNO said that BTS have been deployed in new parts of the capital Minsk and the Minsk region, as well as in towns and villages in the Vitebsk region, such as Begoml, Ozertsy and Obukhovo, and in the cities of Brest, Grodno, Gomel and Lepel. The company notes that the majority of its 4G BTS operate at 1800MHz, but that 800MHz sites are being activated to provide coverage over a wider geographical area.

As part of its ongoing national network rollout, beCloud has announced the deployment of a further 59 4G LTE base transceiver stations (BTS) across the country. In a press release outlining its progress the company confirmed that in February 2022 new 800MHz BTS were switched on in both the Vitebsk and Minsk regions, covering people living in Novaya Guta, Begoml, Krasnoseltsy, Obukhovo, Ozertsy, Osintorf, Ostrovenets, Prozoroki, Surazh, Zubrevichi, Dukovshchina, Dobrino, Dubrovo, Berezinskoye and Perezhir. Furthermore, beCloud significantly expanded its 1800MHz network coverage last month via 44 new base stations in Brest, Vitebsk and Vitebsk region, Gomel and Gomel region, and Minsk and Minsk region. As a result of the latest network expansion, beCloud’s network now comprises 3,508 BTS operating in three bands (1800MHz, 2600MHz and 800MHz), yielding combined network coverage of more than 97.4% of the population and 76.7% of the territory of Belarus.

News portal BelTA reports the Belarusian Communications and Informatization Minister, Konstantin Shulgan, as saying that his country is ‘ready’ to deploy 5G technology. ‘We’ve been making preparations by arranging test areas where every mobile carrier had a go at 5G technology. We saw how it erases boundaries between the city and the village in service provision,’ he is quoted as saying, noting that national PTO Beltelecom, MTS Belarus and Huawei have ‘arranged a test site’ in Kopyl District, Minsk Oblast. Shulgan went on to say: ‘This technology already allows starting practical work in this direction because the effect of the 5G technology is dozens of times higher than that of the 4G technology’.

TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database writes that in June last year, Belarus’ national infrastructure operator Belarusian Cloud Technologies (beCloud) announced the ramping up of its 5G test zones in the country, as it entered the second stage of widescale testing ahead of the commercial launch of the technology. In a press release at the time, the company noted that since 2020 it has been carrying out trials to explore the possibilities of 5G technology and determine the optimal scenarios for its implementation in Belarus. With the tests organised into frequencies in the 2500MHz-2570MHz/2620MHz-2690MHz and 3400MHz-3800MHz bands, between May and December 2020 beCloud began verification of fifth-generation technologies in Minsk and Gomel.

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Monday 3 October 2022

Pakistan is Hoping for 5G in 2023

Pakistan continues to lag most other Asian countries in terms of the maturity of its telecom sector. This is partly due to the poor state of its fixed-line network following years of under-investment and neglect by the state-owned incumbent telco Pakistan Telecommunication Company (PTC), with teledensity now down to almost 1%.

This lack of focus has left the door open to mobile to become the dominant platform for both voice and data. While penetration rates are low by Asian (and rest-of-world) standards, the mobile voice and mobile broadband markets have been growing at double-digit rates of late – at least in subscriber numbers. In contrast to the fixed network market, Pakistan’s mobile segment is highly competitive. The result has been continued downwards pressure to pricing and ARPU, such that mobile revenues have been unable to keep pace with the rate of market expansion as 4G LTE networks, in particular, stretch ever deeper into the more remote parts of the country.

Future growth (in market size as well as revenue) is likely to come from the wider availability of value-added services on top of the expansion of 4G LTE and (from 2023) 5G mobile networks. The Universal Service Fund (USF) continues to direct investment towards the development of mobile broadband (and, to a lesser extent, fibre-based networks) in under-served and even un-served areas of the country, with multiple projects being approved to start in 2021 and 2022.

As Pakistan strives to overcome the immediate hurdles and pave the way for 5G, Opensignal has examined the mobile network experience of users on the four nationwide mobile operators — Jazz, Telenor, Ufone, and Zong — over a period of 90 days beginning on April 1, 2022, and ending on June 29, 2022, to see how they stack up.

Pakistan's telecom industry is also facing major challenges due to ongoing power outages and economic turmoil in the country. To ensure that they can provide uninterrupted services to subscribers and cope with these challenges, telecom operators have urged the regulator — Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) — to take urgent measures. While PTA is yet to come up with an immediate solution, some operators like Jazz and Telenor are reviewing their operations and preparing to deal with the impact. In contrast, despite these challenges, Zong has continued to upgrade it's 4G network with FDD Massive MIMO solution to improve its 4G network’s capacity and spectrum efficiency. The operator has reportedly upgraded more than 170 sites since September last year.

Possibly that is why Zong wins the bulk of Opensignal's awards, winning four out of 10 categories outright (Download Speed Experience, Games Experience, Availability and 4G Coverage Experience) and jointly winning in a further four, including three awards alongside Jazz (Voice App Experience, Upload Speed Experience and 4G Availability ) and the Video Experience award alongside Ufone. On the other hand, Ufone picked up both Consistency awards — Excellent Consistent Quality and Core Consistent Quality.

Jazz Pakistan is the market leader with nearly 43 million mobile broadband subscriptions as of April 2022, having a market share of 38 percent.

Jazz has signed an agreement with fibre-based broadband provider Nayatel to connect all of its mobile sites in Lahore to fibre. The programme is expected to be completed by December 2022. In a press release from the provider, Jazz noted that the upgrade would improve capacity, reduce latency and enhance network availability. Further, the development paves the way for future technologies, such as 5G, which require low latency and high backhaul throughput. Jazz is aiming to increase the proportion of its sites that are connected to fibre to 70% over the next five years.

Jazz, jointly with JazzCash and Mobilink Microfinance Bank, has pledged Rs1 billion for flood relief efforts, the company said in a statement. The amount includes provision of emergency supplies and extension of telecom services. For immediate rollout, Jazz will work with NGOs and the government for distribution of emergency supplies including shelter, food items, and medical supplies, the company claimed.

According to Aamir Ibrahim, CEO of Jazz, there are around 1% to 2% users on their network that have 5G handsets. Even if the spectrum is provided for free, still the business case for 5G in the country is quite weak. Jazz launched 4G around eight years ago, and still, 50% of the handsets being sold today are 2G. Therefore, Jazz believe they need to focus on 4G for all before thinking about 5G for a few. 

Telenor Pakistan is third in terms of market share (22%) with nearly 25 million subscriptions.

Recently they have declared a massive operating loss in the half-year ended June 30, 2022.

Telenor Pakistan, along with its parent company, Telenor Group, have pledged PKR 1.1 billion in cash and in-kind services to support nationwide flood relief efforts. Telenor Pakistan made a cash donation of PKR 100 million to UNICEF Pakistan to support them in relief efforts by providing life-saving nutrition and hygiene packs in affected areas on an immediate basis.

Irfan Wahab Khan, Chief Executive Officer, Telenor Pakistan and chairman, Telenor Microfinance Bank, said:
“In this moment of national tragedy and calamity, our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the floods. With the support of Telenor colleagues from around the world, we are committed to supporting impacted families and communities through these testing times and will do all we can. The road of rehabilitation for the affected is long and treacherous, and we will continue to support to the best of our abilities.”

Zong Pakistan is the second largest operator with 31.3 million subscriptions and a market share of 28 percent. 

Zong has commercially launched a dual-band (1800MHz and 2100MHz) FDD Massive MIMO upgrade on its 4G network in partnership with ZTE. In a statement from the Chinese vendor, ZTE notes that the solution has improved Zong’s 4G data traffic capacity by 21% and improved averaged user throughput by 40%. Zong and ZTE launched the first Massive MIMO site in Peshawar in September last year and by May 2022 the upgrade had been deployed on more than 170 sites. Zong and ZTE are planning to continue expanding the large-scale commercialisation of the FDD Massive MIMO solution to further improve 4G network capacity and spectrum efficiency.

Jazz has been quite vocal about the fact that 5G is not an option for at least the next two years and if it stands by this theory, the company won’t be bidding for the 5G spectrum anytime soon. However, Zong might be an exception to this as it has more strategic interest in Pakistan than commercial ones. Further with a cash-rich parent company in the form of China Mobile and synergies brought in by other Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE, Zong might just take a leap of faith in the 5G spectrum. 

In the wake of the recent unprecedented floods which has affected millions of people across the country, Zong 4G has announced free of cost services for all impacted areas.

Ufone is the smallest operator with 12.4 million subscriptions and 11 percent market share.

Ufone 4G acquired 1800 Mhz spectrum in 2021 and it continues to expand its 4G services in Pakistan to provide an unrivaled telecom experience to its customers. The transformation went on to raise the bar in terms of service delivery and redefined quality connectivity through its world-class voice and data services. The measures helped Ufone 4G to pull off the fastest customer acquisition in the industry during 2022. Owing to the continued modernisation and up-gradation of its network, Ufone 4G went on to register as “Pakistan’s No 01 Voice and Data Network” on Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA)’s Mobile Networks Benchmark Report 2022.

Ufone 4G has launched an accurate weather update service ‘WeatherWalay’ to facilitate customers, especially with regard to the monsoon season and extensive flooding that has affected every province across the country.

The service has been introduced as an Interactive Voice Response (IVR), where customers can call 3392 and obtain precise details of the weather and any changes in it over periods of 24 hours, 72 hours and even a week within the city or other areas in Pakistan. Curated by a team of expert meteorologists led by Dr. Muhammad Hanif, WeatherWalay is being offered free of cost until the 30th of September to assist customers and ensure safer commutes.

Industry watchdog the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has announced that 96% of damaged network sites in flood-affected areas have been restored. At its peak 3,386 sites were damaged by the recent floods, but repairs carried out by the telcos, civil and military authorities and the PTA have restored 3,251 of those sites, the regulator confirmed. Only 135 sites remain offline, with those mostly located in inaccessible areas of Balochistan and Sindh but the PTA notes that other sites are active in those areas, preventing a communication blackout. The PTA added that it had recorded 120 breaks in national fibre-optic backhaul infrastructure, but all of these have now been repaired.

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