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Closing the gap in mobile connectivity

Yehia El Amine

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mobile connectivity

As you’re reading this, take a moment to think about your day. 

Have you joined friends or colleagues in a video conference call, did you scan various social media pages? Have you checked for any Black Friday deals to make an online purchase?

There is one denominator here: access to a high-speed and reliable Internet connection. 

Just as electricity became a modern necessity in the 1930s, high-speed Internet is a necessity today, and currently half the planet’s population is lacking access to any form of an Internet connection.

The problem was exacerbated by lockdowns imposed in response to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than 700 million people in rural areas around the world still cannot make phone calls or access the network, according to GSMA statistics. By the end of 2018, nearly 400,000 villages around the world had no network coverage. 

The digital divide between cities and the countryside is widening, especially the gap between remote and urban areas.

Closing or reducing the digital divide requires both coverage and penetration-related initiatives – especially in a world where demand has changed because of the pandemic.

Governments, telcos, and the private sector have taken note of this, and have already started to fight back against this connectivity blackout.

Last year, Indonesia completed the final phase of the Palapa Ring project. The goal was to bridge the geographical divide in digital services and provide high-speed internet across the country, with a focus on some of the country’s most remote regions, particularly those in the east.

The approach was to build a new national infrastructure as a backbone of Indonesia’s telecommunications system by connecting seven of the archipelago’s island groupings: Sumatra, Jawa, Kalimantan, Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua, through a public-private partnership.

According to a report by Opensignal, a UK-based Mobile Analytics company, Indonesia’s operators have been taking advantage of the Palapa Ring project to bring mobile connectivity beyond Jawa and to address the inequality in mobile network experience across the archipelago over the past two years.

“Our users saw outstanding improvements in all 12 regions over the last two years, between the third quarter of 2018 and the same quarter in 2020 for mobile Download Speed Experience, Video Experience, and 4G Availability,” a report published by Opensignal said. 

According to the report, the gap in mobile network experience between Jawa — Indonesia’s political, population and economic center— and the more remote islands has decreased significantly. In fact, the experience in remote islands has become even better than parts of Jawa in some cases.

“Our Indonesian users also experienced notable growth in 4G Availability — the proportion of time our 4G users spent connected to 4G services — across all regions. In the third quarter of 2018, most of the areas were below the 80 percent 4G Availability mark,” the report highlighted.

But two years later, almost all the regions have broken through or risen significantly closer to the 90 percent 4G availability milestone.

While this demand for connectivity is being slowly met, there is still a lot of work to be done; especially since this growing digital divide is driving economic and social inequity. 

In the US, students without broadband are falling behind in schools while counties with the highest unemployment rates also have the lowest broadband access and usage.

U.S. tech titan Microsoft has also stepped in to help bridge the gap by establishing the Airband Initiative. 

The initiative aims to close the digital divide and bring high-speed internet connectivity to unconnected communities around the world. 

It officially launched in 2017 with the goal of bringing broadband connectivity to 2 million people in the U.S. by July 2022. After early success, that goal grew to 3 million people in the US — and an additional 40 million across the globe — by the same deadline.

In the US the Airband Initiative has ongoing projects in 25 states and territories, with pilots in additional states, and has expanded broadband access to 1.5 million people in rural, previously unserved areas. 

The program has also expanded broadband access to more than 14 million people in rural areas internationally.

In Colombia, a small project in the country’s rural, mountainous Meta region has extended Internet access to coffee growers, helping preserve peace in a previously war-torn area. 

Zipping across to the South Pacific Ocean, the government of New Zealand have doubled down their efforts to bring fiber optic broadband to its rural areas. 

The first stage of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) brought faster internet connections to several rural hospitals and practices. For example, faster internet connection has improved data linkages between Hokianga Hospital and the central GP clinic in Rawene and nine remote primary health clinics.

Stage of the RBI rollout is still in progress. 

“The initiative seeks to provide high speed broadband to the greatest number of under-served rural end users within the funding available, and contribute towards achieving similar rates of access to high-speed broadband by rural end users across all regions of New Zealand,” a statement issued by the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment read. 

In Latin America, Telefónica/Movistar, Facebook, IDB Invest and the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) joined forces to create a company called Internet Para Todos (Internet For All) or IpT.

After a year of the start of operations, IpT has successfully met the challenge of connecting more than 1.5 million Peruvians from remote locations along the coast, in the mountains and in the jungle, providing access to adequate mobile internet.

Peru became a pioneer in implementing IpT, and the experience has been progressively shared with other Latin American countries. The initiative aims to connect more than 30,000 rural communities by 2021.

IpT is an opportunity to integrate all Peruvians to the digital age, which is particularly vital in this context. There must be a coordinated effort between different sectors to connect about 4.5 million Peruvians before the Bicentennial with adequate mobile internet. 

This must be a joint task of the public and private sectors, in an effort to achieve more inclusive connectivity, thus fostering development in a society with equality for all.

As time presses on and the rollout of the fifth generation of mobile networks starts hitting the mainstream, connecting rural areas across the world will become much easier, which will allow for more initiatives to keep mushrooming as the world enters its next phase of technological development. 

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Yehia is an investigative journalist and editor with extensive experience in the news industry as well as digital content creation across the board. He strives to bring the human element to his writing.

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2G, 3G to leave Vietnam in favor of digital transformation

Karim Hussami

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2G, 3G to leave Vietnam in favor of digital transformation (2)

While the digital transformation of societies and economies has led to changes in the ways countries and businesses conduct their plans, the same pattern has reached Vietnam, which moved to promote the uptake of smartphones to advance its digital ambitions.

The country issued a regulation banning the production and import of 2G and 3G handsets effective as of the first of July, Vietnam News reported.

The regulation allows to sell non-complying handsets made and imported prior to July 1.

“Production of phones with 2G technology had decreased significantly with units falling 6-7 million to 12 million, between the end of Q4 2019 to Q3 2020,” Hoang Minh Cuong, Telecoms director at the Ministry of Information and Communications, noted, adding that “tipped the remaining 12 million phones will be ‘wiped out’ by advanced models by Q1 2022.”

Permits for 4G and 5G

The aim behind the new regulation by the ministry is to increase the production and import of 4G and 5G-powered handsets exclusively into the country, while attempting to eventually switch off 2G networks within Q1 of 2022.

To decrease the production of 2G-powered phones, Vietnam intends to bring the number of the technology’s subscribers to below 5 percent by 2022, and eventually halting 2G services by then. This step will look to bring other measures along with it such as opening doors and opportunities for 5G network.

While fifth-generation technology was considered at the forefront of Vietnam’s telecom industry during 2020, telecom providers VNPT and Viettel conducted trials on the service in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang this year, Deputy Director of the provincial Department of Information and Communications Nguyen Thanh Hai said.

In addition, local operators would swiftly move to 5G as the government had prioritized the technology, whilst the nation’s handset manufacturing capabilities offered advantages regarding device costs, a report by Fitch Solutions in May 2020 stated.

Vietnam previously announced to have 5G become the universal standard by 2023-2025, with operators already running pilots in preparations for a broad commercial rollout.

Owning smartphones

On the other hand, the country is targeting to have all citizens own smartphones by 2025 by providing them at a retail price of up to $50. This initiative is encouraged by “Made in Vietnam” nationwide digital transformation program, which was backed by operators and smartphone vendors such as Vingroup.

“The universalization of smartphones was a bold effort to promote national digital transformation, digital economy and e-Government,” Vu Hoang Lien, President of Viet Nam Internet Association, said.

Market research from Vietnam-based Adsota revealed 44.9 percent of the population possessed smartphones in 2020, after some 45 percent of the Vietnamese population, or 43.7 million people, used smartphones as of late 2019.

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Vietnam welcomes 5G in mid-2021, many benefits ahead

Karim Hussami

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Vietnam welcomes 5G in mid-2021, many benefits ahead

While many countries have postponed their respective 5G rollout efforts due to the global COVID-19 pandemic or its affects on the global economy, Vietnam-based telecoms Viettal has already ran its first successful 5G connection back in May 2019, after receiving its trial license in January last year.

Telecom providers VNPT and Viettel enrolled 5G to test the service in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang this year, Deputy Director of the provincial Department of Information and Communications Nguyen Thanh Hai said.

The Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) received many recommendations from provinces to allow carriers to deploy the network in their urban areas, industrial zones, and key areas, especially after telecoms providers conducted commercial 5G trials in cities such as Hanoi and HCM City.

As such and based on the testing results, the Vietnam Telecommunications Authority said it would respond to the recommendations by studying and licensing mobile businesses to deploy 5G, prioritizing industrial parks, high-tech parks, and IT to focus on implementing innovative digital technologies.

Market demand

Director of the provincial Department of Information and Communications noted that “all localities in An Giang are covered by 3G, 4G mobile broadband, and internet subscribers account for 65 percent of the population.”

MIC has ranked the province seventh out of 63 cities and provinces last year in information technology (IT) application and third regarding administration modernization in the Public Administrative Reform Index.

Nonetheless, Vietnam plans to provide 5G coverage nationwide by 2030, offering all citizens broadband Internet connection at low cost, according to the Vietnam authority of communication.

This step could not start immediately and will be dependent on market demand amongst other factors. An example of this is prioritizing major cities like Hanoi, HCMC or Da Nang to deploy 5G due to their need for high-speed services and their denser populations.

The same goes for industrial areas with foreign investments, where smart factories are a necessity.

Digital transformation and e-commerce

In parallel, An Giang will reinforce the application of tourism management and promotions, digital transformation program and infrastructure investment in the postal sector and logistics at large, and e-commerce. It will also strive to set up a concentrated IT zone.

VNPT, MobiFone, and Viettel have been commercially trialing 5G services with their users gaining the possibility to try 5G connections in trialed areas and with 5G-supported smartphones since November 2020.

VNPT and Viettel’s network service trials displayed a speed of up to 1 Gbps, 10 times greater than that of 4G.

Telecom operators are expecting to price 5G services at the same rate as their 4G counterparts and would not require users to change their SIM cards.

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Tariff wars stall India’s 5G rollout

Karim Hussami

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5G rollout

India’s cash strapped telecoms sector will continue to suffer, as operators scramble to acquire already expensive spectrum bands which will heavily impact the country’s 5G rollout, a report by the Competition Commission of India (CCI) warned.

The telecoms industry’s struggle is mainly due to a tariff war that has been taking place since 2016, as well as a nationwide farmers’ protests that has damaged telco equipment on the ground.

Although it is one of the leading countries in startup presence, India still does not have a specific date for the adoption of 5G.

“We will pioneer the 5G revolution in India in the second half of 2021,” Reliance Jio, the country’s most profitable telco, said, while others such as Bharti Enterprises have highlighted that proper integration and rollout of the fifth generation of mobile networks will need to 2 to 3 years.

Other players such as Airtel and Vodafone idea consider that India’s telecom’s ecosystem is underdeveloped coupled with unaffordable spectrum rates.

Uneven adoption of 5G

According to CCI, the availability and amount of spectrum up for auction will be pivotal in the telecoms industry’s ability to provide quality 5G services, since scarcity of the spectrum will result in heightened costs, rendering operations inefficient.

“The current financial health of the sector could result in an uneven speed of adoption of 5G by operators. The more profitable ones are likely to be faster off the block. In case this scenario unfolds, it will have implications for the level of competition in the long run,” the anti-trust body highlighted.

The report by CCI further explained that the importance of creating a competitive market for 5G by ensuring allocation of spectrum at reasonable costs, leading to a more balanced revenue stream.

If not, then the poor financial state of the Indian telecoms industry will lead to an uneven approach toward 5G rollout.

The telecom department will conduct a spectrum auction in March placing 2,251MHz of spectrum at a reserve price of Rs3.92 trillion up for sale.

Spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1,800MHz, 2,100MHz, 2,300MHz and 2,500MHz bands have been put on the block, while the 3,300-3,600 bands, which were suggested by the telecom regulator for 5G, are not included in the upcoming sale.

However, due to the poor financial health of the sector, large portions of the airwaves may remain unsold due to their high prices, echoing a similar situation of the October 2016 auction, where the 700MHz and 900MHz bands did not find any buyers.

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