Telecoms & IT

Colombia’s Telecoms Sector in 2024

Colombia’s telecoms regulatory system is finally preparing to award 5G licenses to mobile network operators, while the sector is keen to catch up with developments in the rest of the world.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Bruno M Photographie

The Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies (MinTIC) announced an auction in December 2022 for the rights to use certain radio frequency bands for the implementation of 5G networks in the country.

The much-awaited auction is scheduled for the third quarter of 2023, by which time more technical details will be announced by MinTIC.

This was important news for the sector, as no similar auction had taken place since 2019, which had slowed down development across the nation’s telecommunications sector.

The nation’s telecoms companies were thrilled to be part of the process. The top three SIM card and internet providers—Tigo, Claro, and Movistar—announced their intention to take part in the auction, as did others such as Telefónica, WOM, OSC Top Solutions Group, Global Play, and Colombia WB Hots. In fact, every telecoms company with a license to operate mobile networks has expressed their intention to apply for a 5G license in 2023.

Even a few companies that are not mobile carriers have expressed their interest, although the country’s regulator only allows registered telecoms companies to bid. Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), a utility company, is the most important non-telecoms business planning to take part in the 5G game. However, there may be changes to the regulatory framework underway that may allow companies such as EPM and other IT companies without their own mobile networks to benefit from the spectrums put up for grabs in the auction.

MinTIC, with the help of the National Spectrum Agency, has shortlisted the appropriate frequencies and bandwidths within the specific context of Colombia and its geography.

Radio spectrums available for auction are diverse, ranging from the relatively low-frequency 1.9GHz band, which is more appropriate for 4G upgrades, to the more mainstream 3.5GHz band, and even the bewilderingly high-frequency 26GHz spectrum, which is more suitable for innovative projects for the future.

Most market players are keen on the industry standard 3.5GHz spectrum, though over half of them have also applied for the 26GHz band, which will enable them to experiment with innovative technologies in this previously unexplored territory.

Not much has been said about the pricing so far, which raises uncertainties about the volume of investment required by telecoms companies; however, the pricing is unlikely to be a dealbreaker, as the sector is determined to embrace the new technology.

According to sources familiar with the matter, 5G equipment is already available in Colombia, with some of the country’s network operators being busy with test runs for a while.

Claro, for instance, has been carrying out tests since as early as 2018 in the absence of a licensing system for commercial has been commercially viable since 2018 and is in wide use in North America. However, it is important that Colombia is making an effort to close the digital gap.

Given the country’s status as an IT hub in Latin America, access to 5G will be a crucial factor for the nation’s IT businesses to stay competitive and defend their position.

The importance of 5G is not limited to the IT sector. There are some 30 million internet users in Colombia, the majority of whom are connected to the internet through mobile networks. The local economy heavily relies on SMEs, which require dependable internet connections for their operations, marketing, and innovation.

And the government knows this perfectly well: “The Government of Colombia is aware of the importance of 5G networks and artificial intelligence for innovation, the creation of smarter societies, and the role of Colombia in the fourth industrial revolution,” reads a press release by MinTIC on the nation’s 5G roadmap.

One upside of being a latecomer to the 5G race is that Colombian carriers can now learn from the experiences of others that have been running 5G networks for almost five years, avoiding the pitfalls that troubled the technology’s early adopters.

One common mistake that many operators committed in the early days of 5G was an overreliance on the new technology and forgetting to hedge their bets between 5G and their legacy networks.

Though undoubtedly superior to its predecessors, 5G works best in combination with a lower frequency network such as 4G. As such, Colombia, with a well-maintained 4G infrastructure, will know better than to phase out its legacy networks in a hurry.

Many hope the 5G spectrum auction will be completed by the end of 2023 and that the first licenses will be awarded soon afterward. Given Colombian telecoms companies’ readiness for the deployment of 5G networks, we are likely to see the first 5G SIM cards in the market in early 2024.

MinTIC has not specified whether all applicants will receive a 5G license if they meet the criteria or if it will be a competitive process. The set of minimum requirements in place currently include at least four years of experience as a network provider and a guarantee for continued presence in the Colombian market for at least 20 years—the valid duration of the licenses awarded.

The nation’s mobile networks are set to be restructured over the next two decades following the deployment of 5G in 2023 or 2024.

Older standards such as 2G and 3G will accordingly be phased out, although 4G is likely to remain in service alongside 5G in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, the current radio spectrums are likely to become oversaturated well before the first series of 20-year licenses expire, necessitating further spectrum auctions by around 2030.

Given the pace of progress in the telecoms industry, however, it is unwise to make any predictions for 2030 at this stage. All the sector hopes to see right now is the first 5G SIM cards in the market by 2024.

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