The mystery of slow internet boils down to clogged and limited mobile towers

TCell says net usage went up by 30% after lockdown while BT says 23%

Mobile Internet users are venting their frustrations over the poor Internet connection for the past several days. It was felt that the introduction of 5G impacted the network, but not so, according to both the telecom service providers in the country.

Tashi Cell

According to TashiCell, the concerns about slower Internet connections are mostly connected to mobile Internet services, particularly among Thimphu’s 4G customers. Users using Internet Leased Lines in homes and workplaces have no such problems.

TashiCell stated that the level of clogging in the 4G network worsened as the number of users along with the consumption per user increased towards the end of last year.

“For instance, the number of users in December grew by 9 percent from November, accompanied by the increase in the consumption per user by 12 percent. As the worsening state of 4G network coincided with the launch of 5G, the customers started believing that 5G has slowed down 4G, which is totally untrue,” TashiCell stated.

In reality, 5G provides ample network capacity to serve a huge number of high-speed Internet users, and it was launched to alleviate the 4G network congestion, said TashiCell.

The sluggish mobile Internet is also due to the service providers’ inability to build new sites or towers to meet the rising demand of mobile Internet users, owing to site acquisition issues.

In addition, with the imposition of lockdown, the mobile data consumption has increased by nearly 30 percent as compared to the pre-lockdown level.

As per TashiCell, the increase in usage is most likely due to office goers resorting to using mobile network to work from home since they don’t have access to the office Internet during the lockdown.

In order to resolve the network congestion, TashiCell is implementing various capacity enhancement measures, using both software and hardware solutions.

For those sites that already have high-capacity hardware, they are enabling the resources through software licenses.

Since Thimphu city has the highest level of network congestion, TashiCell has commissioned two new sites at Chanjiji and Changjalu areas, and two portable sites called Cell-On-Wheels (COW) will be put on air in the Babesa area, which has the worst network clogging issues, within this week.

TashiCell claimed, “There is no other option than to expand the capacity of the network to resolve the clogging issues, so that the users can have good experience, both during the normal times as well as emergency situations.”

There are three critical parts in the end-to-end delivery of the Internet services to the users. The first part is the international connectivity pipe that connects Internet traffic to the core network of the service provider; the second one is the connectivity between core network and the tower sites; and the final part is the connectivity tower sites and users, who are either using mobile Internet or Internet leased lines.

The network congestion, which the customers complain about, is in the final segment of the delivery chain. The tower sites are where the 2G/3G/4G/5G base stations are located. Since every tower site has limited resources, they can accommodate only certain number of users. Once the threshold is crossed, those users who are latched on to that site start experiencing network clogging.

The solution to overcome this issue is to build new sites or introduce new technologies, like 5G. However, due to the difficulties in obtaining the Right of Way, Telcos are not able to construct new sites to resolve the clogging, and thus the issue continues to persist.

Out of the total international bandwidth of 30Gbps, only about 18Gbps is utilized by the mobile Internet and Internet leased line users. Thus, there is no clogging on the international link even during the lockdown when the Internet usage is at its peak.

Bhutan Telecom

As per Bhutan Telecom Limited (BT), technically, 4G and 5G operate in different frequencies and would not interfere in each other’s performance. In fact, introducing 5G in tandem with the existing 4G network should offload some of the 4G traffic, thereby making the 4G speed even faster.

“If we have a majority of customers using 5G service, the capacity of 4G would be available for the 4G/non-5G users, and would result in faster 4G speeds. Unfortunately, since major handset vendors like Apple and Samsung are taking time to enable 5G feature support in their 5G compatible handset models specific to BT’s 5G network, we just have a handful of customers using our 5G service,” the official said.

 “Our 4G network capacity, despite all the enhancement efforts that we have been putting in, has not been able to cater to the ever-increasing demand of our customers for mobile data, especially during abnormal times, such as the national lockdowns due to outbreak of COVID-19,” he said.

One of the other possible reasons for customers having slower mobile connection is that everyone is confined to their houses and uses mobile data indoors during lockdown. Indoor signal coverage in certain of the buildings where BT customers live may not be as strong as it is in other buildings, resulting in poor mobile data quality.

“Typically, the parts of buildings or any concrete structures facing away from the mobile towers get weaker signal strength as compared to the sides of the buildings facing the mobile towers,” he said.

Pre-lockdown versus post-lockdown, BT has seen an increase of 4G traffic by more than 20 percent to 23 percent.

In terms of initiatives to try and boost mobile data speed during lockdowns, BT has been enhancing the capacities of the existing 4G towers, where it is technically feasible to do so. If the individual towers have hit the maximum limit and technically not feasible to increase capacity, for dense clusters like Thimphu, BT is putting in place gentrifying sites installed on 15-meter monopoles.

One of the other things that BT have been doing is encouraging their customers to choose the broadband and leased line subscriptions for meeting the Internet connectivity at home instead of using the mobile data.

Like TCell the limitation, in terms of bandwidth capacity, is really with the individual 4G nodes or cell site equipment.

A 4G node can be expanded to a maximum capacity of 300 Mbps (225 download and 75 Mbps upload) beyond which it is not technically feasible to increase capacity. This is one of the reasons why BT customers in the densely populated clusters have been experiencing slow 4G data speed.

In terms of bandwidth assigned to mobile data, currently BT has 60 Gbps configured from the 2 mobile Cores (located in Thimphu and Jakar) to the Internet cloud. This 60 Gbps of bandwidth would be for both domestic and international traffic generated by mobile data users.

For Internet leased line, BT does not have a pre-configured total bandwidth allotted. Overall bandwidth for leased lines would depend on the cumulative bandwidths of the individual leased line subscriptions in the country.

BICMA

Meanwhile, as per the press release issued by Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA), though the telecommunication companies and Internet Service Providers are trying their best to keep their services running, due to the high contention ratio on the existing infrastructure and internet traffic congestion, the mobile internet service couldn’t meet the requirements as per the prescribed Key Performance Indicators (KPI) of Quality of Services (QoS) in some locations in Thimphu.

“The Authority is also cognizant of public concerns raised in social media and received some written complaints. Therefore, we have been working with the service providers from the Day 1 of lockdown to ensure uninterrupted and smooth delivery of services throughout the country. A team of BICMA officials are continuously monitoring the mobile internet services by carrying out drive tests in all mega zones in Thimphu (where around 15 percent of our population resides),” the press release stated.

To provide a real-time image, the monitoring is done both indoors and outside at various times of the day. The driving test would be expanded to other regions of the country depending on the results of the system generated data.

The evaluation over the last several days has revealed that services in some places are below the required KPI of the QoS standard. As a result, the Telcos have been given orders to repair and remediate the impacted regions as soon as possible, in order to provide consumers with uninterrupted mobile Internet connection.

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