THE Government seems to be caught in a tug of war with cellular operators over the implementation of domestic roaming if there are connectivity problems after 2005.
No operator wants to open its network in the urban centres to its rivals although it does not mind doing so for the remote areas.
But before domestic roaming can be implemented, the Government would have to spell out the areas that should be open for domestic roaming and address the commercial, technical and operational issues that operators faced.
Three industry players share their views with StarBiz assistant news editor B.K. SIDHU.
THE current brouhaha in the cellular phone sector over domestic roaming (DR) is not really about the operators’ reluctance to open up their networks to their rivals but their argument that it should be confined to the rural and remote areas.
Opening up their networks in urban centres to their rivals for automatic DR could have an impact on their earnings in the longer term, and that is not something the companies are happy with, given that they have invested RM15bil in the past decade to build their networks.
Although all three of the country’s cellular operators favour infrastructure sharing, not everyone wants to fork out billions of ringgit for uneconomical areas.
That is the reason they want the Government to draw from the Universal Service Provision fund (to which they contribute yearly) to provide the remote and rural areas with mobile connectivity and not just wireless technology.
“DR is one of the many options for nationwide coverage, but there is a balancing act between cost and return on investments that has to be weighed before any operator can open up its network to its competitors,” Celcom (M) Bhd group chief executive officer Datuk Ramli Abbas said.
DR will automatically divert mobile phone users’ calls from the network they subscribe to, to another available network, which may belong to a rival provider, if their network is unable to provide coverage.
Ramli said the way Malaysia wanted to adopt DR was unique and perhaps the first of its kind in the world. The method adopted by India and the United States was a lot different, with operators being given designated areas and overlapping minimised.
Maxis Communications Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Jamaludin Ibrahim felt that DR would be a good solution for rural, non-overlapping or isolated places such as resort areas, islands and remote villages.
Digi.com Bhd chief technical officer Jon Eddy said it was more viable to roll out shared networks using infrastructure sharing or DR than rolling out three different networks to meet the deadlines set by the Government.
But many say DR is a difficult process for the issues surrounding its implementation range from technical, operational to commercial considerations. It also means investing more in the billing networks.
The new Minister of Energy, Communications and Multimedia, Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik, has been harping on the need for operators to cover blind spots in the country.
He has set two timelines since taking office in April. Time 1 is for operators to provide total coverage in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Cyberjaya by the end October, and Time 2 for nationwide coverage by the end 2005.
He also wants operators to share infrastructure to avoid duplication of resources and has threatened to gazette DR if there are still problems in accessibility and connectivity after 2005.
Lim’s definition of total mobile coverage is that it should cover “main places .. especially along highways, main roads, a cluster of 200-300 houses and tourist spots.”
For now, Celcom has the widest network coverage, catering to 95% of the country’s populated areas. Many want Celcom to take the lead in DR, and DiGi - with the least coverage (versus the two other players) of over 70% - stand to benefit the most with DR. Maxis’ coverage of populated areas is 82%.
But Celcom would not do that, and as Eddy of DiGi points out, “it is very unlikely that the industry would agree to arrangements that mean one operator would profit a lot more from DR than another.”
It is estimated that about RM5bil to RM7bil is needed to expand coverage in the country, as covering more of the populated areas would mean setting up 7,000 to 9,000 cellular sites. If all this is done and the two timelines set by the minister are met, the nationwide mobile coverage would reach 87% compared with close to 70% now. Yet DR already exists in Malaysia. As Naim Yunus, a partner at DTA Ventures, pointed out: “When Celcom and TmTouch merged, 019 and 013 users were able to roam domestically.
Likewise, after Maxis acquired TimeCel, 012 and 017 are now able to roam. ”Maxis subscribers also roam on the DiGi network in Bukit Tinggi.
“So it is no more a technical issue; it can be done,” Naim said. ”Instead of being restricted to intra-operator DR, why not extend it to inter-operator DR ... the regulator should consider this aspect too, for the good of all users.”
To overcome the problem, another observer said, perhaps the regulator - the Malaysian Communications & Multimedia Commission - should strike a balance by designating specific areas to each cellular operator or opt for a bidding process where every operator would have to provide cellular coverage in areas not already covered.
Whatever the views, to the consumer coverage is key. He should be able to move from an urban centre to a remote area and still remain connected.
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