5G Network Experience in Maldives

Maldives

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.

5G Network Hunt at Expo 2020 UAE

At Towards5G, I have been tracking progress in the next standard in evolution of mobile networks. Though I have managed to keep you posted about several aspects in 5G when it comes to its launch around the world, I didn’t have a chance to test its actual performance due to the pandemic situation and several lockdowns back to back.

Since vaccinations in India have gained some significant momentum after mass vaccination drives, most of the adults already have both of their jabs. I had my second jab back in August 2021 which really allowed me to look past the uncertainty and look forward to normalcy.

UAE is hosting its biggest global event – the Expo. It was supposed to happen in 2020. However, given the situation, it was postponed to 2021 retaining its original title – Expo 2020. I was looking forward to travel to this event since back in 2019 when I visited its kiosk at Dubai mall got to know about it.

Expo was happening finally starting from October 2021. Recently in October 2021, I traveled to Dubai for Expo 2020 and to get the real taste of 5G on the spot. Traveling overseas amid pandemic was quite different given the uncertainty of things. It took around 6 hours just for check-in, PCR test, security and immigration since many people were traveling back to UAE at the same time.

After reaching on Sharjah airport, another RT-PCR test was conducted before I entered in the country. The result was supposed to be available on the next day. Until then, passengers were mandated to keep social distance while wearing masks. The immigration experience was smooth and hassle-free despite of the situation.

UAE has two major carriers – Etisalat and du. Etisalat SIM card was available at the airport at the counter. I had to confirm about the availability of 5G network from the salesperson. The SIM cost me 200 AED. The plan was bundled with 22 GB data and limited voice. I chose the top plan for its high value. I was thrilled to conduct several 5G speed tests.

The device I used was Motorola’s Moto G 5G which has 11 5G sub-6 bands supported. After inserting the SIM card, I did not get 5G network immediately and even during my cab journey from Sharjah airport to my hotel in Sports City, Dubai. After contacting Etisalat customer care, I came to know that the 5G was available in limited and select locations inside UAE. I was planning to visit Expo for the next 3 days and I was hoping to get 5G there. And that’s how my first day was over.

I started my next day in Dubai by preparing to visit Expo. I boarded the metro from Dubai Internet City which dropped me at Expo 2020 – the last station. And there it was! The magnificent Expo 2020.

After going inside the Expo, I finally had a very first glimpse of the thing I was waiting for. It was very exciting to see the 5G signal in network icon. However, the first thing I noticed was that the retention of 5G signal was very intermittent. Every now and then it was falling back to LTE when I moved away or even turned around. At first, I suspected that it was my phone which was constantly switching between 5G and 4G to conserve the battery.

I conducted my first speed test of 5G after I had full network bars.

5G speed test at Expo 2020 Dubai

I managed to record the maximum 5G speed at around 600 Mbps in downlink. I also noticed variations in the speed from time to time. 250 Mbps was the average downlink speed I recorded. That being said, there was still no optimization of uplink since the recorded upload speed was pretty much the same as 4G ranging from 20-50 Mbps.

The network was intermittent and seemed to not be fully optimized to use the features of 5G core, Etisalat’s 5G deployment looked like NSA (non-standalone) one. On the next day, I traveled to Jumeirah metro station to conduct another 5G speed test at the riverfront.

5G at Jumeirah

This time, I recorded the peak speed beyond 700 Mbps that was surreal. The network also seemed to be more stable at this place compared to Expo. There were full network bars most of the time and the phone wasn’t switching between 5G and 4G too frequently. Battery drain on 5G network seemed little more than the same when on 4G. When the screen was locked, the phone was auto-switching to LTE thanks to the optimization of Android 11 and the OEM.

As my phone did not support mmWave and most phones sold in Asia don’t, I could not test mmWave 5G this time. I also traveled to Abu Dhabi but could not find 5G signal there, even at the city’s prime location.

It was such a great experience to travel to UAE, to visit the Expo, hunting the 5G network and conducting those speed tests to witness this next-gen network. I hope to travel again to different locations around the world and find stable and abundant 5G signal someday.