On 14 March, Jorgen C. Arentz Rostrup, Chairman of Grameenphone board and the Head of Telenor Asia (the parent company of Grameenphone) sat down for an exclusive interview with three media houses in Dhaka.
Grameenphone's silver anniversary was not lost on Rostrup as he spoke to highlight the company's milestones and why it is special doing business in Bangladesh.
After all, this was Telenor's first investment beyond the north, a very different venture for the multinational telecommunications company, headquartered in Oslo, Norway.
"And it's been so impactful for Telenor that we call ourselves a Nordic Asian company and we really see that in our cultures and the way we work. So, we [get to] experience a total mix.
[Moreover], we have the ambition to continue our growth, and move forward while simultaneously holding on to their leading position [in the market]," said Rostrup.
Rostrup stressed on the significance of customer service and its base. He explained how Grameenphone is built on it. "Customer's trust and the operator's infrastructure are the reasons behind Grameenphone's leading position.
The operator will be the first to be investing in its network when it comes to better customer service," he said.
Regarding the industry, he said it is a market with fierce competition with three competent operators in particular and Grameenphone is one of the most advanced companies.
"The reason is also that the market has a size which makes it possible to become advanced and to set high expectations," he said.
The times they are a-changin'
Rostrup said that consumers' behaviour changed "from voice to data." He pointed out how revenue from voice calls have fallen due to a substantial decrease in phone calls that customers make. And as people continue to use phones more for texting and work than to make phone calls, Rostrup believes that there lies a huge opportunity for the operators to generate revenue from increased use of data.
"Globally, the telecom industry also saw a huge increase in data volume. Telecom industry is clearly a 'growth' business. So if there has been 40 and 50% growth [in data consumption], there is clearly growth in your business," he added.
In a recent survey of the regulatory commission on the quality of service of the mobile operators, Grameenphone was found to be providing poor 4G data service. Why?
Jorgen said that this was a result of the pandemic situation when consumer patterns and capacity patterns drastically changed.
When the world moved from offline to online, the operator failed to increase its capacity and correspond with the increase in demand.
"However, we want to do better and I'm sure we will do better. I'm sure we will see that we are performing better as we go forward - even better than we have done lately and offer good quality to Bangladeshi customers," explained Rostrup.
He reiterated that Grameenphone holds its leading position in the market because of its network strength and their customers' "because we enabled them to lead daily life," he added.
He also said that the operator has invested significantly for network expansion, almost double, in 2021.
"During the Covid-19 situation last year, we participated in the spectrum auction to acquire the maximum level of spectrum. Then almost doubled our network investment in Dhaka at new sites. All to address the changed customers' behaviour during Covid-19," said Yasir Azman - CEO, GrameenPhone, who was also present with Rostrup at the conference.
A spectrum auction is held by the government where they allot radio frequency to telecommunication companies through auction.
The telecom regulator is going to hold the next spectrum auction on 31 March for 5G and other technology.
Speaking about the journey with the telecom regulator, Rostrup said if you have been in one environment for 25 years, you have had many interactions, discussions and good collaborations with those who are setting the parameters.
"I have got, from time to time, an opportunity to talk to both the minister and to the chairman of the regulators and I believe they are very serious about their job and their respective organisations are very serious about their job that they are doing," he said.
The Grameenphone Chairman said that it's not always that we agree on every issue, but, more or less, I think we are on a good path.
"That being said, in my view, we need to work together - the government, the telcos, other commercial interests - in order to move the digital agenda," he said.
The present and the future
Sharing his plans for the next spectrum auction, Rostrup said, "From a Telenor perspective, we are working on 4G and 5G globally. We work thoroughly on 4G, and are very concentrated in the Nordic [countries] and Asia.
We have been running pilots, trials, and have worked on it so that we understand more of it, including its potential, the business models, value proposition, technical setup, and many more. We will continue to do this," he said.
However, 5G is still nascent in Asia. It is on its way. And Telenor and Grameenphone are ready for it when it comes. He said they will be present when it's time, adding, "we are inquiring and investing [in the technology]."
Rostrup said that "But again, as I said, Grameenphone is one of the most important companies in the Telenor portfolio. Therefore, from an industrial point of view, our thinking - which puts the customer first - and our ability to be relevant for the customer, will provide 4G and 5G in Bangladesh very soon."
Explaining the Grameenphone's profitability position among the Telenor companies, he said it is in the best half of it. "It's not on top, but it's the best half of our portfolio.
The one place where it is on top is the share, we pay in taxes and fees," he said.
But all is not sunshine. Employees alleged that they are being forced to leave the job. Often Grameenphone cuts jobs with a golden handshake.
Addressing this, Rostrup said, "if you want to run a top company, then there are only two options: either to successfully upskill the manpower or to come to a mutual agreement and bid goodbye to those whose competencies are much less relevant today than it was 10 years ago.
They might have competence, experience and they might work hard, but maybe what they can bring to the table will serve better somewhere else.
So, a mutual agreement that we have to do it in a fair way, we have to compensate for it in an okay way and we have to be super transparent about this but we cannot not act on it because it's simply too important for the bigger companies."
What is the regulatory commission's role in providing quality service in a collective effort? Yasir Azman said "there are four different partners and the quality of service doesn't only depend on us.
Fibre optics is an integral part of providing high quality of service to the customer. But if we do not have the necessary equipment to provide fibre then we will not be able to measure our service as do we have enough Key Performance Indicators (KPI).
In the end, we are responsible for the customers. So, there should be streamlined KPIs for all in the value chain so that, together, we can provide the best service to our customers."
Additionally, doing business in Bangladesh is not the same as doing business elsewhere. He said, "if you think it is equally easy to run a top global standard company in
Bangladesh as it is in Singapore or Norway, then you are wrong.
[Despite the challenges], if we are able to run a top global standard company in Bangladesh, then this is special. It is special because of the people we have here, all the support, advice, engagement we get around here, and the demand and expectation of 80 million customers, and many more.
So, when we are celebrating 25 years, it's really with pride and happiness. And we are very happy with the development," he added.
What is the future for Telenor in Bangladesh? Rostrup said, "as an investor and as an industrial contributor, Telenor is in for the long haul in Bangladesh. And we hope that together with other stakeholders and the government, we can really develop the digital agenda."