In an interview with The Business Standard, Banglalink’s Chief Executive Officer Erik Aas described the Covid-19 pandemic as a crash course in digitalisation
Banglalink Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is of the opinion that this is not the right time for Bangladesh to go for the fifth generation (5G) technology.
"This is because it will be expensive compared to investment and usage," he said in a recent virtual interview where he discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the telecom industry, tax issues, spectrum prices and quality of service.
Erik, who has been serving as the CEO of the country's third-largest mobile operator since 2015, also touched upon other key industry issues. At the moment, he is carrying out his duties from his home country, Norway, because of the pandemic.
Elaborating on 5G, he said, "Primarily, this technology means high-speed internet to the general people. From the technological point of view, I do not think 5G is more important to the people than having access to smartphones and digital services in the next two to three years."
From a financial point of view, 5G is a disaster because it is extremely expensive. Very few people will use it in at least the next five years. In terms of investment, that is extremely expensive as well
"On the other hand, from a financial point of view, 5G is a disaster because it is extremely expensive. Very few people will use it in at least the next five years. In terms of investment, that is extremely expensive as well," he explained.
He threw a question, "5G may result in industry automation, driverless cars on Dhaka's roads and a digitised harbour at Chattogram port. But do these services exist in Dhaka now?"
"Therefore, I do not think it is the right time for Bangladesh to go for 5G," said the Norwegian ICT professional who earlier served as the CEO of the country's largest operator Grameenphone from October 2004 to October 2007.
Erik said heavy investments in his company's networks are needed once again to launch 5G. "For this reason, if we are not supported by proper policies and infrastructural developments, it will turn out to be another big financial challenge for us."
However, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has planned to launch 5G technology from the beginning of next year.
Covid-19 has impacted almost every sector of the economy. It also hit the telecom and information technology sector hard.
Talking about how the pandemic affected the telecom sector, Erik said, "Covid-19 not only threw challenges at us but also made us learn a lot of things about the telecom industry and human behaviour."
Covid-19 has been a crash course in digitalisation. People who use digital services and have smartphones are living that kind of life
"Covid-19 has been a crash course in digitalisation. People who use digital services and have smartphones are living that kind of life."
"But it also raised a lot of concerns because many people do not have access to digital services. They may not have smartphones or internet connections. Therefore, they are lagging behind," he said.
At the beginning of this year, the highest internet usage was 1,000 Gbps in the country and it reached 1,800 Gbps during the pandemic, according to the post, telecommunication and information technology ministry.
There are several reasons why internet usage boomed. The number of mobile financial services (MFS) increased during the pandemic. In March, the total number of registered MFS accounts was 8.26 crore, which grew to 9.26 crore in July. Online shopping, e-learning and executing office tasks from home saw a record growth during the global health crisis.
There had been lots of allegations about internet speed, quality of voice call and call setup time in Bangladesh, especially recently. In this regard, Erik said the overall quality of Banglalink's services had improved significantly in recent times.
He said spectrum is something that works between subscribers and operators to provide better services. "The more spectrum allocation per subscriber you have, the better service you can provide."
"Before 2018, we had a shortage of spectrum. But in the latest auction, we invested a lot. I feel Banglalink has enough spectrum per subscriber than any other operator," said Erik.
"This is one of the reasons why we are the fastest data provider in Bangladesh. Globally renowned organisations such as Ookla and Opensignal have recognised our superior service quality," he said.
"However, the comparatively high spectrum price in Bangladesh remains the main challenge for providing quality service. If spectrum was cheaper, we could have more allocations for giving better services," he added.
The comparatively high spectrum price in Bangladesh remains the main challenge for providing quality service. If spectrum was cheaper, we could have more allocations for giving better services
On July 1 this year, the BTRC imposed some regulations on Grameenphone, declaring it as a Significant Market Power (SMP) operator.
Regarding that, the Banglalink CEO said there are two reasons why SMP is needed – to give cost-effective services to subscribers and to protect smaller players financially to some extent.
He truly believes that a market like Bangladesh with a dominant player like Grameenphone needs SMP regulations. "The current SMP regulations imposed on Grameenphone are not so strong but they are a good start."
"I believe that over time, the BTRC will find reasons to impose stronger SMP regulations so that those directly affect subscribers to a greater extent," Erik said.
Talking about taxation policies, the Banglalink CEO said the telecom industry is running under a strict taxation system which is not encouraging for investors.
"Taxes have to be imposed on profits. Once a company makes profits, you can always impose taxes on that. But in Bangladesh, we have to pay a lot of taxes, such as supplementary duties and import taxes, before making profits. Investors are concerned about that," he said.
Banglalink recently clinched the Ookla Speedtest Award for quarter one to quarter two this year and Opensignal's Mobile Experience Awards 2020. Erik said they managed to achieve the awards due to the company's unwavering focus on ensuring superior customer experience through advanced technologies.
He said, "As part of our objective to enable more customers to enjoy digital experiences, we brought many areas of the country under our strong 4G network in the last few quarters."
We have already welcomed the audit initiative, and are fully prepared to support the BTRC in carrying out the necessary procedures
Recently, the government initiated to conduct an audit of Banglalink after GP and Robi.
Commenting on that, Erik said, "Banglalink is committed to maintaining the highest standards of compliance in every aspect of its operation."
"We have already welcomed the audit initiative, and are fully prepared to support the BTRC in carrying out the necessary procedures," he added.