September 27, 2022

Though 5G launches around the world are slowly gaining some pace since 2021, most of the Asian countries are still left out. Our recent trip to one of the most surreal holiday destinations in Asia resulted in an unexpected surprise. We traveled to the Maldives in January 2022. The Maldives has been one of the first countries in the world to open its borders for tourism amid the pandemic. Since 2021, rules have been relaxed for fully vaccinated travelers.

Contrary to my last travel to UAE, the travel experience to the Maldives was much more relaxed and hassle-free. We were greeted by the scenic island of Male with clear waters of the Indian ocean. The country of Maldives is formed by 20 natural atolls. Out of which, we had planned to visit at least two with four islands in total.

North Male and South Male atoll

After reaching the airport we were offered a couple of SIM options – Oreedoo and Dhiraagu. We chose Dhiraagu since it was offering a much cheaper traveler plan with 17 GB of data. Out of curiosity, I did an inquiry with the salesperson about the availability of 5G. I got to know that 5G is available in the Maldives with very limited availability. The device I used this time was my iPhone 13 mini. My model of iPhone (A2628) supported 19 5G NR bands in sub-6 spectrum, thus more possibility of getting long-range 5G signal.

After inserting the SIM into my device, it took a few seconds for the network registration. Initially, the SIM latched on the LTE network but within a minute it switched to 5G (the happiness!). The signal looked more stable and the 5G network was consistent at the airport. This availability makes Dhiraagu/Oreedoo the only operators and Maldives the only country in South Asia to have 5G availability for consumer use.

I conducted a few speed tests and noticed the average downlink speed around 170 Mbps, just a little more than what was on 4G. Uplink speed was not optimized for 5G, just like Etisalat (UAE). The network looks like non-standalone (NSA) where gNodeB communicates with EPC (4G core) instead of 5G core.

We went to our hotel located in Hulhumale’, a new artificial island in the Maldives located outside Male’ city. I noticed that the 5G signal was consistent most of the time, especially when outdoors. In the denser area of the city, it used to fall back to 4G since the signal getting blocked by buildings, given the higher frequency. The 5G speed in Hulhumale area too, was a little above 4G. For voice calls, the network was falling back to 3G using CSFB. It looked like Dhiraagu had no IMS deployment for its LTE network, which enables voice-over IP network (VoLTE). Also, it’s too early to expect VoNR from operators as well as OEMs.

We stayed on two different public islands – Dhiffushi and Maafushi, respective on the north and south side of the capital Male’. As soon as we left the Male’ island we lost the 5G signal. However, it was really admirable that LTE was available almost everywhere in the Maldives, on public islands, sandbanks, and even in the waters when we were on the speedboat.

After our return to Male’ city, we did a short tour near the city’s coastal side where the Dhiraagu headquarters were located. 5G network was again available intermittently. Due to the dense structure of the capital city, the signal was falling back to LTE when we entered inside the lanes. The 5G downlink speed was averaging around 450 Mbps, significantly more in this area compared to Hulhumale.

It was a great experience to have experience of 5G in South Asia. Though the availability is currently limited to the capital island, there are a lot of opportunities to harness the potential of this next-gen technology in remote islands. 5G can be a virtual bridge and an information expressway between 1200 coral islands of this country, enabling so many latency-sensitive and mission-critical use cases. I hope the Maldivian operators take steps in the right direction to leverage the same.