There are two major mobile operators in Iran: MCI and MTN Irancell, along with minor operator RighTel. Significant progress had been made in the counttry in upgrading infrastructure particularly 3G and 4G networks before the US government reimposed economic sanctions during 2018.
Mobile penetration is considered to be high with a rate of 119%. Most citizens access 2G and 3G networks and in November 2014, the first 4G LTE network was launched by MTN Irancell. While 4G LTE services are available, primarily in the urban areas – however one third of mobile subscribers don’t own a smart phone. Further investment in both mobile and fixed telecoms infrastructure, particularly in the rural areas, is required however in order to speed up progress and lower costs for consumers, pave the way for 5G.
Until June 2017, MCI with a penetration rate of 62.5% expanded its coverage to 32,078 km in main routes and 34,591 km in side routes, which in total with railways reaches 75,595 km and 96.5% of the whole population of the country and cover a total of 44,918 villages.
Some 13 million subscribers actively use internet provided by Hamrah-e-Avval or MCI, giving it the biggest share of the market. The number of MCI subscribers to 3G and 4G Internet has been reported as 12.8 million and 297,000 respectively, however many are unable to receive 4G as MCI only recently started giving out 4G SIMs. By the end of 2016 MCI covered 547 cities with 3G Internet while providing 33 cities with 4G Internet.
Irancell, partly state-owned and owned by South African MTN group has been established as 2nd provider in the country, they have a 38.47% share and penetration rate of 40.1% in the communication market. They cover a total of 35,936 km, including 17,631 villages.They started with 3G and 4G in late 2014 and already cover 1040 cities with 3G and 240 cities with 4G/LTE in 2016. Thus more than half of the population has access to fast internet now. In 2016 TD-LTE on 3500 MHz (band 42) was started to replace their WiMAX access and is operational in 49 cities so far. By the end of 2016 10.4 million subscribers use 3G internet provided by Irancell and nearly 1.6 million subscribers use Irancell’s 4G internet.
The smallest operator Rightel has 2% has a penetration rate of 2.08% covers 27,406 km and 65 villages.
Rightel works great in certain parts of large cities, but has horrible (or non existent) coverage in smaller cities and many rural areas. Many people thought its prices were too high, and the speeds given were much slower than what was advertised. High speed internet also caused some cultural controversies, leading RighTel to restrict selling its SIM cards to those 18 and older.
They reportedly had a total of some 2 million mobile internet users at the end of 2016. RighTel’s 3G Internet coverage expands through 520 cities across Iran. It has only recently started with 4G/LTE on 1800 MHz in the capital.
MTN Irancell, and Sweden’s Ericsson jointly conducted a test of 5G connection in Tehran 2017. Recently ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi wrote on his Twitter account:
“Heading towards 5G! It is an aim we pursue besides development of IoT in 1398 (Iranian calender year). Now, all the Iranian cities and over 66 percent of villages have 3G/4G coverage. We do our best for development of public access in next year despite sanctions. The new generation of telecommunication is waiting for us!”However no other details are as of yet confirmed.
In 2018 Nokia provided a range of equipment to mobile operators MTN Irancell and Mobile Communications Company of Iran. It also has a contract with fixed provider HiWeb. Limited fixed services were provided to regional players, either directly or through local contractors. It also sold wireless kit in the country through subsidiary RFS.
During 2018, Nokia booked net sales of almost €55 million from activities in Iran. However Nokia then announced it would refuse new business in Iran during 2019 due to the reintroduction of sanctions by the US government, restricting activity to completing existing contractual obligations.
Iran has blocked some websites and social media like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Some apps like Telegram are not completely banned and WhatsApp has been unblocked and some VoIP calls and messaging are allowed again. But with this 'openess', a system of smart censorship has been introduced. Certain websites that are considered to be offensive are 'phased out'.