• United States
Contributing Writer

The state of 5G in South Asia 2022, country-by-country guide

Oct 01, 20227 mins

A country’s size and economic stature doesn’t necessarily correspond with its 5G deployment strategy in our survey of eight South Asian nations.

5g cellular tower
Credit: Shutterstock / Alexander Yakimov

The eight nations that constitute South Asia vary enormously in size and economic and technological power: from the tiny landlocked kingdom of Bhutan, population less than 1 million and a GDP of US$2.4 billion, to India with a population of 1.4 billion and a GPD of US$2.6 trillion.

But their 5G progress does not match their size and economic power. The two smallest nations—Bhutan and Maldives—both have commercial 5G services. The two largest—India and Pakistan—have yet to get full commercial 5G services. In these and other countries the assignment and allocation to operators of spectrum for 5G are delaying service introduction.

5G in Afghanistan

Given the parlous state of the Afghani economy in the wake of the 2021 Taliban takeover and subsequent embargoes, it is hardly surprising that Afghanistan has no 5G services.

However, the groundwork has been laid. In April 2021, before the country fell to the Taliban, Parallel Wireless, a US-based developer of Open Radio Access Network (ORAN) systems, teamed up with Afghani mobile operator Etisalat Afghanistan to deploy what Parallel Wireless claimed would be “the world’s first cloud-native ORAN-compliant … solution … [and] the world’s first network architecture that unifies all mobile connectivity standards—2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G—under the same software and cloud-native umbrella.” Intel and Supermicro were also involved in the project. Parallel Wireless said the network would be upgradeable to support 5G, and it said Afghanistan’s wireless broadband penetration had reached 22% in 2019.

5G in Bangladesh

Bangladesh got its first 5G network in December 2021 when state-owned Teletalk Bangladesh launched a 5G service using technology from Nokia in Dhaka in a handful of significant buildings: the Bangladesh Secretariat, the National Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum, the National Monument in Savar, and the mausoleum of the Father of the Nation in Tungipara, Gopalganj.

Teletalk said coverage would gradually expand to more regions but gave no timetable. In January 2022, it announced a partnership with tower owner Summit Towers saying it planned to install 2,500 base stations that would provide 5G coverage across the country.

The December 2021 launch did generate some controversy. There were reports questioning the choice of the high-profile sites, saying there was little need for 5G in these locations. Another report said the country lacked the fibre network to support high-bandwidth 5G traffic.

5G in Bhutan

Being a landlocked Himalayan kingdom with a tiny population, less than 1 million, has not stopped Bhutan joining the 5G bandwagon. Both mobile operators, Bhutan Telecom and Tashi InfoComm (TashiCell), launched services in the main towns of Thimphu, Paro, and Phuentshogling in December 2021. Bhutan Telecom is using non-standalone technology from Ericsson.

5G is seen as a key enabler of Digital Drukyul, Bhutan’s five-year plan, launched in 2018, that aims to “harness the power of ICT to transform Bhutan into a smart and inclusive society”.

5G in India

You might expect India as the largest and most technologically advanced nation in South Asia to be a leader in 5G. But it is not. In her 1 February 2022 budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the country might not get 5G services until 2023, after auctions of spectrum later in 2022. This was in contrast to a report in local newspaper Business Standard in November 2021 that quoted unnamed government sources saying the India government expected 5G rollouts to start from August 2022.

Ultimately, India did roll out 5G services to its first 13 cities on 1 October 2022, with the coverage to grow until it becomes nationwide in 2023.

Meanwhile, Nokia has a website dedicated to ‘5G in India’ where it says “5G connections in India are expected to reach near 500 million subscribers by 2026.”

Reliance Jio announced in January 2022 it had completed 5G coverage planning for 1,000 cities and would rollout out 5G rapidly once spectrum becomes available. It is already testing its homegrown 5G ORAN and core technologies, part of an effort in India to not be dependent on foreign providers.

Given concerns in several nations that Chinese telecom providers might provide a conduit for Chinese government spying, the Indian government has banned both Huawei and ZTE from providing technology for 5G trials but in September 2021 India’s Financial Express newspaper quoted Huawei India CEO David Li expressing his optimism that the company would ultimately gain access to India’s 5G network market.

5G in Maldives

Maldives was the first South Asian country to get 5G. Dhivehi Raajjeyge Gulhun (Dhiraagu) launched a commercial 5G service in August 2019. However, it was of use only to overseas visitors with 5G phones—no 5G phones were available locally. The service was available in three regions: the area around the capital Malé and nearby Velana International Airport (Hulhule), Addu City (Hithadhoo), and Haa Dhaalu Atoll and Kulhudhuffushi City. Coverage does not seem to have expanded since then, according to the coverage mapson the Dhiraagu website.

Ooredoo Maldives launched 5G services covering a large part of the capital Malé in December 2020. Simultaneously, it launched a 5G fixed home broadband service within its 5G coverage area.

5G in Nepal

Nepal looked as if it would be an early adopter of 5G. In September 2019, CG Telecom, the telecoms arm of Nepal based multinational conglomerate Chaudhary Group, announced at the Nepal Investment Summit an agreement in principle with Turkish operator Turkcell to launch 5G services in Nepal, but nothing came of that announcement. CG Telecom was not granted a licence to operate mobile services until February 2022.

Today, Nepal does not yet have 5G services from any of its incumbent operators:  state owned Nepal Telecom; Axiata Ncell, and Smart Cell.

The Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA) submitted a spectrum plan for 5G to the National Frequency Determining Committee in February 2021, and in October 2021 it asked operators to submit expressions of interest for the provision of 5G services.

Nepal Telecom had planned to start trials in July 2021, but a change of government that month delayed the plan. The Supreme Court appointed Sher Bahadur Deuba premier in place of KP Sharma Oli, who had been in power for three years. The court ruled Oli had breached the constitution by dissolving Parliament. Following this, the country was without a communications minister until October 2021.

Nepal Telecom is now planning trials in June 2022 and commercial services by August 2022, following the granting of NTA approval for 5G testing in November 2021. Neither Axiata Ncell nor Smart Cell have announced plans for 5G trials or commercial services.

5G in Pakistan

Pakistan is aiming to have 5G services in 2023 following an auction of 5G spectrum in the 1800MHz and 2100MHz bands scheduled for later in 2022.

The introduction of 5G would follow a period of substantial growth in Pakistan telecoms. More than 10,000km of fibre optic cable—necessary for 5G backhaul—was laid between 2018 and 2022, providing high speed internet to more than 1,100 towns. The industry has attracted more than US$1.2 billion in foreign investment over the past three years.

The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MITT) announced in January 2020 that it had constituted an advisory committee for 5G planning. This followed MITT announcing 5G trials in August 2019 with China Mobile Pakistan (CMPak), which trades as Zong. However MIIT announced in February 2021 a limited test of 5G by government-owned Pakistan Telecommunication Co. Ltd. (PTCL), claiming it as “Pakistan’s first 5G test”. MIIT announced in February 2021 that Pakistan would have 5G services by December 2022.

5G in Sri Lanka

Sri Lank has had 5G services for at least two years, but these are currently free trials using frequencies assigned for the purpose.

Mobitel was first off the mark in June 2019 using equipment from Huawei and claiming the first 5G service in South Asia. Dialog Axiata launched a trial 5G network in July 2020 at its Dialog Iconic and Dialog Experience Centres at Alfred House and the World Trade Centre, and in several areas of Colombo. It continues to operate with services uncharged, and the Dialog website shows coverage in multiple areas of Colombo and elsewhere.

State-owned Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) followed with the launch of its precommercial trial in January 2021, and Airtel Lanka launched a trial 5G service in February 2022.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) had planned to hold the first 5G spectrum auction by 2022. But Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) Chairman Oshada Senanayake was reported in December 2021 saying the government was now hoping to stage the auction in the first quarter of 2022.