When Grameenphone started its journey as a village phone programme in 1997, mobile phone was still a luxury in Bangladesh. But in the last two decades it has not only grown keeping pace with the economy but also taken modern but affordable telecom services to the doorstep of the people.
It took only a year or two to become the leading and largest telecom service provider in Bangladesh – a feat it has successfully retained years after years. It is one of the largest taxpayers in the country too.
Today, GP has nearly 6 crore subscribers, nearly half of the total customer base in the country. It generates 22.25 crore calls daily. Over 2 crore people use internet on its network.
Thanks to the reach of GP and other mobile phone operators, Bangladesh has the 10th highest number of mobile subscribers in the world.
The exact contribution of GP to the economy is hard to come by. But according to the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh, the sector accounts for 6 percent of gross domestic product, giving an idea about the leading player's role.
GP is a pioneer in introducing new products and services in the local telecom market.
“We have passed two decades successfully in Bangladesh. It has not been only a business success for us but the journey has helped the overall development of the country,” said Petter-B Furberg, chief executive officer of GP.
He said during the journey the operator has established telecom infrastructure and developed the telecom market which has brought a new dynamism to the economy and most importantly made modern telecom accessible for the general people.
The operator was the first to introduce GSM technology in Bangladesh and mobile to mobile telephony and became the first company to cover 99 percent of the population.
GP was the first telecom operator to introduce the pre-paid service in 1999. It established the first 24-hour call centre, introduced value-added services such as SMS, fax and data transmission services, international roaming service, SMS-based push-pull services, and personal ring back tone.
In the process, the operator has eliminated thousands of miles of physical distance, facilitated trade and commerce, education, health care and created jobs.
“Now we are looking forward to the next 20 years.”
In the last two decades, Grameenphone has added 8,124 users per day on average. Now, 30,000 to 35,000 new customers are joining the network every day.
Furberg said the operator is trying to build a digital ecosystem that will be helpful for the people living even in the furthest part of the country.
“We are not only a telecom company; we are a company for the future which helps boost the economy,” he said.
GP offers bill and utility payments services and has channelled 3.88 crore transactions so far. The operator allows its subscribers to buy train tickets through mobile phones.
Starting with only 47 employees, it directly employs about 3,000 people. But some 7 lakh people are directly or indirectly reliant on the company for their livelihood as dealers, retailers, scratch card sellers, suppliers, vendors, contractors and others.
The company invested Tk 29,860 crore as of December 2016 in the country. At the same time, it contributed Tk 47,760 crore to the state coffer. It disbursed Tk 15,249 crore among shareholders since 2015.
Norwegian telecom giant Telenor holds 55.8 percent share in GP, while Grameen Telecom owns 34.2 percent and the remaining shares are held by general retail and institutional investors.
The company is now working on e-commerce services and segments such as entertainment and plans to roll out more digital services.
However, some local e-commerce entrepreneurs have opposed GP's move to make entry into the segment.
But Furberg argued: “If the entry is restricted it will be bad for Bangladesh as it will limit innovation.”
“If people want, services such as Alibaba and Amazon will come to Bangladesh and Facebook will run classified ads. Then what is the problem with Grameenphone?” he asked.
“We are definitely not monopolising and pushing someone out of the market. Rather we are bringing more competition to the market.”
Despite all the achievements, GP also has frustrations as it has not got permission to launch mobile financial service (MFS).
Furberg said: “Even we applied together with a bank, but we have not been given the approval.”
“This is a loss for the Bangladeshi people because there will be less competition in this segment,” he said, adding that GP is not pursuing the MFS issue any more.
The former CEO of Telenor Myanmar said given the advancement in technology and the advent of data services that have brought in lifestyle, communications and social empowerment applications onto smartphones, it is hard to predict where the company will be after one or two years.
“I can at least say that as long as Grameenphone continues to provide innovative and relevant services it will have a place in the heart of its subscribers,” said Furberg.
He said the future of the industry will lie more in data and digital empowerment and GP will try to meet the customers' needs as best as it can.
“Grameenphone wants to be a facilitator to promote innovation and entrepreneurship and we have already started to establish such platforms.”
Yesterday, GP's market capitalisation was Tk 45,195 crore, the highest among 331 companies listed on the Dhaka Stock Exchange. Its shares traded between Tk 328.10 and Tk 336 on the premier bourse.