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Sunday, October 2, 2022

‘It would help everyone if we are allowed to provide new digital services’

Interview with Grameenphone CEO Yasir Azman

Last year the leading telecommunication operator Grameenphone (GP), appointed Yasir Azman as its Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the first Bangladeshi national to hold the top executive position in the company.

Before his ongoing tenure as the CEO, Azman was Deputy Chief Executive Officer at GP since 2017.

Prior to taking his current role in Grameenphone Azman served in various positions within the group including working as the head of distribution and e-businesses for Telenor Group. He was the EVP and Circle Business Head for Orissa and Karnataka for Telenor India between 2010-12.

Azman has been credited with playing a leading role in setting up Grameenphone sales and distribution organization, which transformed Grameenphone’s distribution structure.” He is a true believer in Digital Bangladesh and shares the company’s vision of empowering societies, connecting customers to what matters most.

In the following interview with Fintech magazine, Yasir Azman talks about many topics, including digitalization, IT, Telecom, and Financial Services.

Fintech: 5G is set to launch soon in Bangladesh. Is Bangladesh ready for this in terms of necessary infrastructure? What about Grameenphone? How prepared are you?

I think we will never be ready if we don’t start it. It will never be like ‘everything is ready, so now we launch’.

We welcome that the government has initiated a process where they said Teletalk (a government-owned network company) would launch 5G. By establishing 5G in Bangladesh through Teletalk, the regulators and the stakeholders in the government will learn and understand the complexities and ground realities around this. In addition, it will help other operators to come into the picture and launch down the line.

I believe that 5G is not only about the auction. People might focus on the auction part of 5G, but it has a lot of other things associated to it. For example, about 35% of the devices we have in Bangladesh are smartphones currently. And even then, those are 3G and 4G phones. So, the device ecosystem needs to be ready.

More importantly, we also need a robust fibre backbone for the 5G system to work. The operators don’t have the license to build the fibre network. So, that regime needs to be there. Simultaneously we need a significantly higher number of towers for this.

As an operator — Grameenphone — we are taking our preparation in full swing. We are modernizing our network significantly so that we can immediately implement this at the right time. And if the auction happens next year — which will probably be at the end of next year — and all the other elements in the ecosystem are ready, Bangladesh can utilize the opportunities of 5G.

There is no such thing as a perfect timing where everything will seem to be ready, hence we should embrace the government’s initiative to implement 5G and unitedly work towards our shared vision of a Digital Bangladesh.

Fintech: Smartphone penetration is still shallow in Bangladesh. What role does this play in your calculations, planning and so on?

It is a highly critical issue for us. Grameenphone has have launched 4G in Bangladesh and have upgraded all of the sites to 4G. But all devices are not 4G. We still have significant numbers of 3G phones, feature phones. While we the company has invested in 4G, we are not being able to monetize those due to the accessibility and affordability of 4G enabled devices.

The most important thing is to bring high-speed internet to the customers. Whether it’s education, agriculture, or the health sector, you need connectivity. Progress is complicated without it. So, we want to bring the benefits of high-speed internet to our customers to unleash the potential of the nation. This is not possible without 4G devices.

So, it’s playing a critical role. But, at the same time, it’s encouraging to see that global brands have started production in Bangladesh. And they are concentrating on high-end devices. So, we expect things to get better shortly.

Fintech: Grameenphone has been the leading network company. However, at times it seems as if it is immovable from this position. Do you think about being more seriously challenged by your competitors?

It ultimately doesn’t matter what we think. It depends on our customers. It depends on whether we can continue to be trusted by our customers. So, we are aware of our competition, but we are more about being customer centric. I respect the trust of our 83 million customers, and we shall continue to bring innovation in our services and technology to serve them better.

If we can solve the problem of our customers, if we can connect them to what matters most to them. Initially it was the voice, and then we had the basic internet connectivity, and then came the era of digital services that customers need. So, if we can deliver these to our customers in the way they want, in a way that is easy for them, we will continue to be the most preferred brand, I think.

It is challenging to provide a consistent experience in the data world, and it is utterly different in contrast to the voice world, which was in the past. The absolute leadership, consistency in performance that we saw in voice does not translate smoothly to the data world. You have many kinds of devices, 3G, 4G, feature phones. There is also the 2G layer, 3G layer, 4G layer for the network which are all co-existing. Speed can vary depending on how many customers are covered under a site. So, ensuring smooth and consistent customers’ experience is our utmost priority.

We have brought a wide array of technological investments so that we can solve the customer’s problems. For example, we have bought spectrum this year. We are also rolling out sites at the same time and introducing new services. So, our main agenda is customer-centricity. If we can keep it up, then we will continue to be the most preferred brand.

I BELIEVE THAT 5G IS NOT ONLY ABOUT AUCTION. PEOPLE MIGHT FOCUS ON THE AUCTION PART OF 5G, BUT IT HAS A LOT OF OTHER THINGS AS WELL

Yasir Azman, CEO, Grameenphone | Photography: Arif Mahmud Riad
Yasir Azman, CEO, Grameenphone | Photography: Arif Mahmud Riad

Fintech: 4G coverage is not consistent across the country. And that is the case for all networks. How have you addressed this problem?

The first thing we needed to do was to launch all 4G enabled sites and we declared that in March accordingly. Then the issue is to make the new sites 4G-enabled and to eventually fine-tune the network.

Different spectrums have different types of strengths. Once we roll out 4G in a site, we need to optimize and make sure it performs. This is a journey, and this journey is on the way to completion for the 4G rollout. We need to calibrate every now and then to ensure an increasingly better experience.

We face some challenges because of the experience gap. In the metro cities — especially in Dhaka — it is challenging to get new sites. New constructions are creating barriers. Sometimes we have to remove old sites because of new constructions, and then we don’t get new sites.

Sometimes people have a health concern. But mobile telecom industry is an established industry worldwide. You have network sites everywhere in the world. By obstructing new sites, we are degrading the service. So, I hope that we can clarify this point to the concerning public, and we will be able to solve this problem. If we can solve this, then our services will be better.

Fintech: What kind of interoperability do you want to see in the future? Is this something that concerns Grameenphone?

In Bangladesh, we provide mobile connectivity, but we cannot provide fixed connectivity. So, I think the industry should not be restricted; it should be an open market to introduce fixed broadband connectivity, and so on.

If we can bring this service using the expertise we have and the capabilities we have, then you will see new businesses emerging depending on that. So that will contribute to our economic growth. Restricting the industry, will lead to a loss of the synergic effect. So, it would help everyone if we could provide fixed broadband, new digital services, and enable purchase of digital services using mobile balance.

WE HAVE LAUNCHED 4G IN BANGLADESH. ALL OF OUR SITES ARE 4G. BUT ALL DEVICES ARE NOT 4G. YOU STILL HAVE SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS OF 3G PHONE, FEATURE PHONES. WE HAVE INVESTED IN 4G, ALL OF OUR SITES ARE 4G, BUT WE HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE TO MONETIZE THOSE.

We are working collaboratively with regulators to create an ecosystem where our competitors and we will provide services. A competitive environment will eventually benefit the customer. The end customer will then have the possibility of getting better service in that competitive market. Otherwise, if it is too fragmented, if there is a lack of competition, you can’t have better service and price.

Fintech: What are the legislative or regulatory obstacles that are preventing you from doing this?

There are different kinds of obstacles. For example, mobile service providers cannot provide payment services. They can’t provide fixed broadband either. The most significant issue is that we can’t lay fibre. You have a different licensing system for that.

As a result, subscribers think we are not able to provide the service. But in reality, this is not within our control. The fibre network is not operated by us. If there is a problem of quality, then we get the blame because we have the direct link to the customer. The backbone services are not directly linked to the customer.

So, I think there is scope for work in this area. We are in talks with the regulators regarding how we can solve this problem.

Fintech: You have the GP Accelerator program for startups. What were your main goals, and what do you think you have achieved through this?

The main objective we have is to become a bridge between the youth and the opportunities through technological innovations around the world. So, the goal of the Accelerator is not to solve all the startup problems in Bangladesh.

The idea was to create awareness, help create an ecosystem, talk about the policy gaps that prevail in this area, and encourage the youth. The Accelerator program is the pioneer in Bangladesh in that regard. 44 startups graduated from this program, almost all of which are now well established.

But you can see that there are now many other platforms like that. Many in the private sector are getting involved in this, and even the government’s ICT division has programs. So, when we started, the ICT Division worked with us very intimately. We got support from the Telecom Minister, Mustafa Jabbar, and the ICT State Minister, Zunaid Ahmed Palak.

You now have a lot of funding coming from abroad. So, we have two objectives. One is to help some startups and support them to grow. And the second is to help create the total ecosystem.

Fintech: How has the pandemic affected you?

On one hand, we took the pandemic as an opportunity to enhance our reach and to make sure that we are supporting the people who use our services. But, on the other hand, we carried out 45 thousand fine-tuning in our network in the first week of the pandemic to cater to the unique situation as people left cities and demand in the rural areas rose.

The uncertainty motivated us to accept the pandemic as a challenge and to stand true to our purpose of empowering the nation by providing connectivity that enabled people be it for their education, work, safety, or family.

We also tried to do something for the community, marking the critical areas in Google Map. On the business front, we took a hit. Minutes usage declined, as voice usage went down. We tried to play a part in helping people through this tough time.

Fintech: But didn’t your volume go up in data?

Yes, but at the same time, we lowered prices. We provided prices at 20-30% discounted level. Although it seemed that there has been an apparent increase in volume, but the same level of growth didn’t happen in data revenue as opposed to the decrease in voice volume.

Therefore, the increase of revenue in data did not compensate for what we lost in voice. So, the ultimate result was in the negative for us, from which we recovered a little this year.

But our approach to this is that if customers are in our network, we can come back. Maybe we will see better business next year. Right now, our job is to be there for our customers and bring innovation to them.

THE ACCELERATOR PROGRAM IS THE PIONEER IN BANGLADESH IN THAT REGARD. 44 STARTUPS GRADUATED FROM THIS PROGRAM, ALMOST ALL OF WHICH ARE NOW WELL ESTABLISHED.

Fintech: What is Grameenphone’s vision regarding fintech?

We are in the early stage of fintech still. What we now have in the MFS (mobile financial services) world is mainly money transfer. This is not really fintech at this point. But the startups we are seeing now are trying to incorporate fintech in an integrated way. Whether it’s Pathao or Shopup, or other new startups, they are approaching it in innovative ways.

For us, we are in a restrictive situation. We are not even able to provide the regular bill payment through our MyGP app. We don’t know why this is not still allowed. But these things should open up for us. The more you open this up for everyone, the more customers will gain confidence in the technology. And then you can bring in other fintech services.

If we can facilitate fintech, then we will have more and more transparency. And the more clarity you have, the more people will be able to engage directly, and the more will the economy grow. The marginal population particularly needs this, and these services need to be delivered through digital platforms. Small entrepreneurs need micro-loan, for example, without collateral. This is not possible without fintech.

Saqib Sarker

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