The Financial Express

BTRC proposes rules for network-locked handsets

| Updated: October 29, 2021 10:56:16

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The telecoms regulator made a move regarding the sale of mobile network operators' (MNOs) network-locked handsets to increase 4G penetration in the industry, according to insiders.

In its 255th commission meeting, the BTRC set some conditions for marketing carrier- or network-locked handsets against an application of Robi Axiata.

However, Grameenphone said this decision would help realise the vision of digitalisation through smartphone penetration and maximum utilisation of 4G network.

But Banglalink expressed a negative opinion on the network-locked handsets as it said the decision would reduce the freedom of choice of the users.

The BTRC stipulates that such handsets be provided in instalments, MNOs and handset manufacturers ink deals, and MNOs buy handsets from local manufacturers.

"MNOs can't import handsets," it spells out, saying that it is not MNOs but manufacturers who will deliver handsets to users directly.

The BTRC also decides that a client will pay 40-60 per cent price as down payments of handsets to MNOs.

The instalment period should be from six months to 12 months, it says.

A user can switch to other operators after 12 months even if s/he cannot pay the total price. "If any operator takes responsibility of the price of handsets, users can opt for SIM mobile number portability."

The BTRC also stipulates that handsets must have two SIM slots-one locked by operator who pays the price of handsets and the other used by the customer.

A delinquent user will get a chance to pay instalments in the next 30 days. In case of failure, the MNO can then take restrictive action within 10 days.

BTRC director general (spectrum division) Brig Gen Md Shahidul Alam said they are yet undecided on the issue. "We'll decide on Robi's proposal on October 31."

Robi chief corporate and regulatory officer Shahed Alam says, "When you consider that 4G handset penetration has reached only 30 per cent against the 4G network coverage of 98-per cent population, it becomes clear that our lack of device ecosystem is depriving us of enjoying 4G service."

Handset locking facility is a global phenomenon, he says, adding that: "We hope our regulator would allow the MNOs to offer handset locking facility to solve this problem."

Grameenphone acting chief corporate affairs officer Hossain Sadat says, "We believe this decision is under consideration in the best interest of the citizens to help realise the vision of digitalisation through smartphone penetration and maximum utilisation of 4G network."

"However, we haven't seen the proposal yet and need further understanding to make a comment."

Contradicting with Robi, Banglalink head of corporate communications and sustainability Ankit Sureka says they believe that network locking in any form will be detrimental to competition, and will impede the progress of digital Bangladesh in the long run.

This also reduces a subscriber's freedom to choose carrier of his/her own choice, he adds.

He suggests that device impairment (limited features in case of non-payment of EMIs) be a more viable way to encourage large numbers of users to opt for 4G-enabled handsets.

Robi proposes a handset-financing campaign along with carrier-locking features for Robi subscribers based on customers profiling to address their affordability.

"Eligible Robi customers will be offered 4G handset loan with fixed one-time down payment including EMI option to assist people those who does not have bank accounts, debit/credit cards or cannot afford to purchase a smartphone with one-time full payment."

To address this affordability issue, Robi says, many global networks lock SIMs by offering customers EMI options in exchange for a contract to pay for the use of the network for a specified period.

"If the phones were not locked, users might sign a contract with one MNO and get the phones, then stop paying monthly bill, thus breaking the contract and start using the phones on another network or even sell them for a profit," the Robi explains.

Network-locked devices are tied to one operator. For instance, a network-locked phone from Banglalink will not work with Robi SIM card and vice versa.

Such types of phones are subsidised and sold at lower prices to increase accessibility.

SIM locking curbs activity by prohibiting change of network by using a new SIM. This business model exists in Pakistan, India, Norway, Australia, Denmark, France and Germany.

Last April and May, the BTRC initiated a dialogue between MNOs and handset makers to help reach an agreement to this end, but no consensus was reached.

The Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh also sent a report to the BTRC on MNOs' opinion on the issue.

The MNOs are not allowed import and direct offer of handsets in Bangladesh unlike India and most countries.

The country's less than half users now use 4G network, according to the BTRC.

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