State-owned Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited lost around 4 lakh customers within a span of six years
Md Abdul Jalil, a resident of Mohammadpur, Dhaka, applied to the Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited (BTCL) for a landline connection in 2004.
Even though he completed all formalities to secure the connection as per the customer service rules, the BTCL authorities kept delaying the process for unknown reasons.
The delay finally prompted Jalil to obtain the connection by taking a recommendation from a minister.
Almost all clients, have to go through this hassle while getting a landline connection from the state-owned telecommunication company.
Furthermore, poor maintenance, coupled with increased rent and high tariff for different services of BTCL connections, have been driving many of its subscribers away.
Irritated with poor maintenance and ghost bills, Uttara resident Asif Abdullah discontinued his 20-year-old BTCL connection in 2000.
Like Asif, thousands of landline subscribers across the country have turned their backs on this once precious, and popular, mode of communication over the last several years.
Within a span of six years, the BTCL lost around 4 lakh customers.
Surprisingly, this has been happening despite a drastic fall in fees for connections provided by the state-run landline provider.
According to BTCL sources, a new telephone connection now costs Tk2,000 in Dhaka, Tk1,000 in Chattogram, and Tk600 in other divisional headquarters, districts, and upazilas of Bangladesh.
This is in sharp contrast to the 1990s, when a connection cost Tk20,000. In 2004, the cost was slightly brought down to around Tk16,000.
In 2013, the total number of landline subscribers in the country was over 10 lakhs. The number has now come down to around six lakhs.
As the lone government agency responsible for providing the service, BTCL has a capacity to serve 14 lakh subscribers.
Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited says the number of its clients is decreasing due to technological advancement, not because of poor services and maintenance.
"Because of an ever-increasing use in mobile phones, the demand for land phones is on the decline globally. Mobile handsets offer many programmes and facilities where land phone usage is only limited to a fixed area. Therefore, household customers are opting out from this service," said Md Anwar Hossain Masud, company secretary of the BTCL.
However, many subscribers said the major reasons for cancelling the BTCL's landline subscription are poor services, unprofessional behaviour of the linemen and ghost billing.
Asif Abdullah stated that their phone line used to get disconnected before every Eid festival and that they had to endure both mental and financial sufferings to retrieve the connection.
Echoing the consumers, several telecom experts said that BTCL's troublesome service was the main reason for this dire situation. They, however, admitted that mobile phone penetration across the world also contributed to the falling trend in demand for land phones.
"People have so many alternatives against landline connection. Therefore, land phone connection is losing its appeal. Besides this, it is also true that the wires of these lines get stolen very often and the service gets stopped for this. This is not feasible for the users because they have to spend extra money for the wire and maintenance," said Sumon Ahmed Sabir, a telecom expert.
A decade of continuous losses
The BTCL managed to make profits in the first couple of years after it had been turned into an independent company in 2008. Since then, things have only gone downhill for the state-owned company.
Many private-sector telecom and internet service providers in the country have thrived in the past one decade or so, but the BTCL, despite having all necessary infrastructure and policy support, suffered from continuous losses in this period.
Agni Systems Limited is one of existing 133 nationwide Internet Service Providers (ISP). In the 2010-11 fiscal year, the company made a profit of Tk4.17 crores. Showing steady growth in the following years, the amount stood at Tk6.95 crores in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
Since the 2014-15 financial year, the profit of the company never dropped below Tk6 crores.
On the other hand, Mir Telecom Limited, one of the 24 International Gateway (IGW) providers of the country, also showed progress by dealing with international calls. In 2016-17 fiscal year, the company earned $41.45 million from international voice calls.
The state-owned BTCL has been providing voice carrier service, International Gateway, International Internet Gateway (IIG) Services, Internet Service Provider (ISP), Land phone (PSTN) operator and domain registration services. It has the countrywide infrastructure and network even at the union level for providing these services.
According to official data, in the 2017-18 fiscal year, the company owned property and assets worth Tk39,739 crores across the country.
However, the company has been counting operating losses continuously. In the last 10 years, the company profited only once.
BTCL authorities said that the main reason for its losses is the low sale of internet services.
But experts said that an absence of accountability on part of the company officials and its failure to provide smart services are responsible for BTCL's operating loss.
In a bid to get back its position, the BTCL has taken several initiatives in recent years.
Posts and Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar on October 22 announced that the BTCL will provide landline connections, free of cost, marking the "Mujib Year" – the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
This facility will continue throughout 2020.
Earlier on August 8, the landline provider announced on-net unlimited talk-time at a monthly fee of Tk150 with no line rent, aiming to offer more pro-people and time-befitting services.
Besides, it also fixed off-net (BTCL to other operators) call charge at Tk0.52 per minute and this offer has been effective from August 16.
Meanwhile, the BTCL has also implemented different initiatives such as change of demand note for connection, customer service automation, and creation of a separate domain to turn it into a modern organisation.