Telecom sector can galvanise economic recovery
As connectivity through digitalisation has proven worthwhile in keeping socio-economic activities up and running even during the pandemic, entire Bangladesh is running after innovation in this area, said Yasir Azman, chief executive officer of Grameenphone.
If the operators and the government work together, the telecom sector can contribute more towards faster economic growth and quick recovery from the knock-on effect of the pandemic, he said.
"We have the scope to work together to take our industry to the next level. Especially during the pandemic, we have realised how important a tech platform could be," the official said, adding that digitalisation endeavours deserve much more attention.
Azman, who was the first Bangladeshi to assume the role at the leading mobile operator, recently sat with The Daily Star for an interview to mark his 100 days as the CEO.
"Digitalisation is not only about the benefit of the operators. We want it in the entire ecosystem to create a positive impact on our economy."
The overall economic growth will not be praiseworthy in the current year but hopefully, it will start picking up next year.
"I don't think we will be able to return to our previous growth momentum by 2021. But we may make a comeback in 2022. And telecommunication and digitalisation will play a great role in that."
Though the pandemic has dealt a big blow to the telecom sector, Azman said their services enabled many people to work from home and meet through digital platforms like Zoom, MS Teams and Google Hangout.
"We have realised that our connectivity benefitted entire Bangladesh. This is our achievement."
He, however, said their investment priorities could be changed due to the present crisis. Investment decisions will depend on the next few days considering the usage pattern and economic recovery.
"If there is a need, we will invest even more. If not, we will wait."
The telecom industry has already seen that data use has increased and hopefully, it will be more in the coming days, said Azman, who has also served as head of distribution and e-business of Telenor Group, the Norway-based telecom giant that has a 55.8 per cent stake in Grameenphone.
The operator also observed that customers' behaviour was changing rapidly with a 40 per cent increase in activation through their digital channels.
"Think about how fast the change was, how people are using different platforms. It is a huge change for people. And it has allowed me to know where to focus on as a CEO and as a company."
However, he said currently mobile penetration is only 60-65 per cent in the country and among them, only 50 per cent use the internet while their average internet usage is about 2GB.
But the regional peers like Myanmar and Thailand have more than 75 per cent smartphone penetration and their average internet usage has risen to 10GB per user.
"Vast opportunities lie here," Azman said, adding that they are hopeful about the market and expect that companies like Grameenphone can also get double-digit growth in the coming years.
About the tussle with the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission over an audit claim of Tk 12,580 crore, the Grameenphone CEO said the regulator has told them that stakeholders will sit together to find an amicable solution.
The carrier already paid Tk 2,000 crore in line with a court order.
"I do not see any solution regarding this issue unless we can have a reasonable discussion. Based on that, I hope there will be an amicable solution," he said.
When asked if the battle with the regulator has impacted the share price of the listed company, Azman said: "lots of things depend on market dynamics".
"All the indices of the market went down as a whole, not only the Grameenphone stock price. There were other factors as well."
Azman thinks none should give up their legitimate rights, even if there are temporary losses, and in the long run, matured investors appreciate this process.
He also criticised the way the regulator has declared the operator a significant market power (SMP). The BTRC has named Grameenphone an SMP operator as it has more than 40 per cent revenue and market shares, but restrictions are yet to be imposed effectively.
Referring to global practices, Azman said SMP implication should reflect the alignment between the right process and the competition law.
In this case, it is mentioned that the evidence should be submitted whether any party is destroying the market by playing dominance over others. Based on that evidence, corrective actions need to be defined, he said.
Azman also mentioned the spectrum price and allocation process as a challenge. He said they have long been requesting the government to bring down spectrum prices.
"Operators are heavily investing in equipment and managing network capacity. You can either manage this with the spectrum, or you can bring modern equipment."
When operators buy modern equipment, the money goes out of the country but it can be minimised by lowering spectrum prices, he added.
The official also urged the government to withdraw SIM tax.
"When the SIM tax was implemented last year, the number of new subscribers fell drastically and the government cannot be benefitted if the subscriber base of operators weakens."
As a CEO, Azman also wants to focus more on contributing to society.
"What we do here has a great impact on our economy. We are a commercial organisation, no doubt. But the purpose of it is very strong."
For the sake of the industry and the betterment of the country as a whole, he would like to see issues related to spectrum and towers be solved within the next six months.
Within the next one and a half years, he wants to see the readiness of 5G and its ecosystem aligned with the regulators, device owners and the digital service providers.
And by 2022, 5G services will be launched in Bangladesh, he said.
"I want to see that people acknowledge and endorse the contribution of the telecom sector to the development of our economy. We want to help unleash the potential of every individual and enterprise," Azman said.