Survival Bid: BTCL strives to rise again | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 17, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:05 AM, October 17, 2020

Survival Bid: BTCL strives to rise again

In the red since 2013-14, the company now undertakes projects to restore customer confidence, get back subscribers

While many may not remember the last time they used a landline phone, some families still have it -- either gathering dust in storage or still displayed on the corner table in the living room.

Landlines, deemed necessary by those who could afford them just until two decades ago, are now more like relics of the past though some may keep them for the convenience of older family members who still like to get in touch the old-fashioned way.

Such households are very much in the minority today and mostly government and private offices continue to use these phones.

Ever-accelerating technological progress -- the rise of the internet and the ubiquity of mobiles and now smartphones -- has made this traditional method of communication ornamental at best, and obsolete at worst.

"We have had a telephone connection in our home since the late '60s. But we hardly use it these days, rather keeping it in memory of our grandfather," said Navid Hasan Khan, a resident of Elephant Road.

Aside from these nostalgists and baby boomers, Bangladesh Telephone and Telegraph Board (BTTB) is barely surviving by peddling a still working but out-of-fashion technology in the age of mobile phones.

Introduced in Bangladesh in the early '90s, mobile phones hit hard BTTB's user bank and its revenue, from which the state-owned entity has still not recovered.

Renamed Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited (BTCL), it, however, has been taking several initiatives to provide more and better services in an effort to stay relevant.

When BTCL started its journey in 2008, it inherited 8.66 lakh users.

Since then, it has seen a gradual decline; according to official data, the number of traditional telephone users in Bangladesh at present is 5.30 lakh.

This figures pales into insignificance when compared to the number of mobile phone users.

There are currently over 166 million mobile phone SIM users in the country, with a person aged over 18 and having a national ID card being able to have a maximum of 15 SIMs.

Less users means less revenue and the BTCL is doing poorly, currently surviving on government subsidies.

In the financial year 2008-2009, BTCL earned Tk 1,689.36 crore with a net profit of around Tk 106 crore.

Eleven years down the line, revenue has almost halved -- BTCL earned Tk 886.81 crore, incurring a loss of around Tk 368 crore in the last fiscal year (2018-2019).

With an exception in the 2012-2013 financial year, BTCL has been in the red for the last 10 years.

A BTCL official, preferring not to be named, recently told The Daily Star that they were facing a cash crunch, struggling to provide maintenance and pay salaries.

The picture in India is almost similar.

The state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) was once a highly profitable company in India, but it has been in serious financial trouble since 2010, according to reports of Indian media.

Another government-owned telecom Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) has also been in the red for nearly the past one decade.

The government in October last year announced a Rs 69,000 crore revival package for these two loss-making state-owned companies, which included strengthening of the finances through sovereign bonds, monetisation of assets and a guarantee to provide 4G spectrum.

However, the telecom service providers are still incurring losses, according to media reports.


BTCL MD Rafiqul Matin said they have undertaken several new projects to make the landline telephone multifaceted to increase the number of users.

"Our main challenge is to restore customer confidence by improving the quality of services. We are now addressing any complaints from customers within one to three days," said Matin, adding that they have introduced the app "Telesheba" for the purpose.

"BTCL is not only thinking about providing telephone services but also multifaceted services including the internet. Customers will get broadband internet on the same line with our telephone connection," he told this newspaper recently.

He added that the BTCL has started providing 11-digit numbers so that users can continue to have the same number regardless of what district they live in.

"We will also introduce Alap, a mobile app like Viber and WhatsApp, so that users can communicate from anywhere through it."

As part of extending its network, he said, BTCL is working to install optical fibre in 1,217 unions across the country.

"Our Wi-Fi will be installed in every educational institution in the country. Our internet will be more affordable and powerful than any other broadband company," claimed the BTCL MD.

However, several landline telephone users told this reporter that they would still think twice before availing the services of BTCL due to its past track record of mismanagement, bribery, and poor customer service.

"Even If they provide internet service through the telephone line, I have to think whether I will take it or not. Because it's not a matter of how fast the internet is or how much it costs, it's a matter of how good they are in providing customer service," said Badal Chowdhury, a 50-year-old businessman living in the Ramna area.

"Private companies at least assure me that even if the internet connection is disconnected at midnight, they can repair it then. The government company will not provide me with this service -- I am pretty sure of this."

Badal also recalled how he suffered with his landline, which often remained out of order, and had to bribe the lineman to fix it after long delays when the government-owned company enjoyed a monopoly of the country's telecommunications network.

While low confidence in public services in general is not uncommon, BTCL continues to face a deluge of complaints from users about frequently disconnected or dead landlines even as it says it is implementing more and better services to attract customers.

Earlier this year, Matin went on Facebook Live to apologise to customers and personally respond to questions about BTCL services -- a move which its officials said was a first for a state-owned enterprise directly reaching out to customers on social media.

"The telephone and internet services are necessary 24/7. It's not a nine to five job," Badal said.

A freelancer by profession, 30-year-old Navid echoed the same but added that in his experience, BTCL had improved its services in recent years.

"I have seen how my family used to have to run from office to office to fix a damaged line. It took about three to four weeks to fix the line after filing applications at different places," said Navid.

"But if you complain now, it will be fixed on that day or the next day."


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