From a Telenor perspective, we are working on 4G and 5G globally. We work thoroughly on 4G and are very concentrated in the Nordic region and Asia.
Jorgen C Arentz Rostrup chairman of Grameenphone
Grameenphone aims to realise the full potential of the fourth-generation (4G) technology as the super-fast mobile telephony can support customers in their digitalisation journey, said Jorgen C Arentz Rostrup, chairman of the largest mobile phone operator in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh entered 4G era in 2018 and has already brought about 95 per cent of the population under its coverage.
Yet, only a third of the population have 4G connections, owing to lower affordability of devices and levels of knowledge and digital skills.
“We are going to max out on 4G, which is extremely important and has vast potential. Hence, we are going to do the most of that and eventually move on to bring in new technologies and things within this,” Rostrup told The Daily Star in an interview in Dhaka recently.
His thoughts came at a time when GP is celebrating its silver jubilee.
The operator, which started in a small one-floor office in Dhaka’s Mohakhali to support women and connect them in the remote areas in 1997, has become the country’s most dominant player in the telecommunication sector in the last quarter-century, serving more than 8 crore customers presently.
As it ascended to the top, GP has invested Tk 41,000 crore to build a network infrastructure that covers more than 95 per cent of the population.
However, the majority of mobile subscribers in Bangladesh still use feature phones and only around 53 per cent of GP’s customers use internet.
Rostrup, also the head of Asia at Telenor, the parent company of GP, says Telenor is focused on developing 4G, including in Bangladesh, where GP is technologically and digitally advanced.
His visit came at a time when the telecom regulator of Bangladesh is set to hold the spectrum auction for 5G on March 31. The operator has already submitted an application expressing its intention to take part in the bidding.
“From a Telenor perspective, we are working on 4G and 5G globally. We work thoroughly on 4G and are very concentrated in the Nordic region and Asia.”
“We have been working on 5G for a few years. We have been running pilots and trials so that we understand more of it, including its potential, the business models, value proposition, and technical setup.”
According to Rostrup, 5G is still at a nascent stage in Asia. Telenor and Grameenphone will embrace it when the time is right.
Without pointing to any specific direction, one should not embark too much in one direction before things are mature and ready, he added.
“There are business cases, economic models, technology, demands, customer expectations, and customer’s willingness to participate in the development of it.”
Rostrup, who served Telenor Group as the chief financial officer and currently also holds the position of executive vice president, personally asked his bosses to appoint him as the chairman of GP because of the importance of the market.
“Bangladesh and Grameenphone are special and that is why I was delighted to be named the chairman of the board.”
GP was the first investment of Telenor outside the Nordic region. And the investment has been so impactful for the Norwegian company that it now calls it a Nordic Asian company.
Despite having a strong footprint in Bangladesh, Rostrup describes the telecom market as very competitive with three strong operators.
He doesn’t think that telecom companies, globally as well as in Bangladesh, were caught off guard by the coronavirus pandemic although they are still struggling to ensure proper internet speed.
“On the contrary, telecommunication has been a very successful sector that has adapted quickly and kept things going.”
He blamed the change in patterns linked to customers, demand and capacity brought on by the pandemic for the poor user experience.
Speaking in the same interview, Yasir Azman, chief executive officer of GP, says during the pandemic, the company participated in two auctions, acquired maximum spectrum, almost doubled network investment and set up new sites.
“I’m sure you are experiencing a much better network now,” he said.
Despite remarkable advancement, GP has cut jobs in large numbers in recent years bringing down the workforce to below 1,500.
Rostrup says the company is constantly developing the skills of its employees and it is top on the list of how much time colleagues spend on training and learning.
Many competencies of employees have become less relevant today than they were 10 years ago. And the only solution to that is to either successfully upskill them or to come to an agreement so that they can put their talents to good use somewhere else, he said.
“But we have to do it with respect and fairness and we have to compensate them.”
Asked if Telenor has any plans to merge GP with Robi, the second-largest operator in Bangladesh, like Telenor Group and Axiata Group did it by bringing Malaysian operators Digi and Celcom under one entity, Rostrup says he does not usually make comments on the issues that are not final.
“We have concluded the merger in Malaysia. We have decided to do the same in Thailand.”
Dtac, Telenor’s telecom brand in the Southeast Asian country, and True Corp, part of CP Group, have signed an agreement to create a new telecom-tech company.
GP is one of the most profitable ventures of Telenor.
“Profitability in Grameenphone is okay thanks to the good work we have done over many years. However, the one place where it is on the top is taxes and fees,” Rostrup said, referring to the company’s continuing position as the top taxpayer in Bangladesh for many years.
He also touched upon regulations.
“We have respect for the challenges. On the other hand, it is also important that we are not regulated so much.”
“We are trying to find solutions. My general comment would be that in these colossal disruptions that we are seeing, we just need to be adaptive.”
About the future, he says Telenor will continue its strong presence in Bangladesh as long as it feels welcomed as an investor.
“We are in it for the long haul and we hope that we, together with other stakeholders and the government, can really help implement the digital vision of the country.”