Teletalk, the state-owned mobile phone operator of Bangladesh, is working towards reaching the milestone of 10 million subscribers in 2021, said Teletalk Managing Director Md Shahab Uddin. In an interview with Daily Sun Business Editor Shamim Jahangir, he also talked about five-year strategic plans that include upgradation of network and expansion of spectrum to ensure the best customer service in the country’s mobile phone sector. He said the plans have been undertaken to make Teletalk a profitable state-owned enterprise.
Daily Sun: Teletalk is the country’s only state-run mobile phone company. It received approval in 1995. How is it doing now?Shahab Uddin: Teletalk Bangladesh Limited was launched in 2005 with Tk 6.43 billion paid-up capital and Tk 20 billion authorised capital. The government had introduced the country’s only state-owned company Teletalk seven years after Grameenphone and Robi (previously Aktel). These two private mobile phone operators were launched in 1997.
Teletalk had an initial target of capturing 250,000 subscribers. Then, afterward, it revised the target setting it at one million and, for which, the company undertook some marginal projects to attract consumers.
In the beginning, the company limited its operation only within Dhaka city and then expanded to other divisional cities. Bangladesh introduced 3G network in 2013 through the Teletalk under the G2G project. Thus, it became the sole 3G service provider at that time.
Daily Sun: How would you evaluate the success of Teletalk’s 3G operation?
Shahab Uddin: One year after the launch of 3G network by Teletalk, the country’s private mobile phone operators had introduced their 3G network services. Due to financial constraints and lack of enough investment, the state-owned company could not expand its network base and launch modernisation. Because of this, the expectation of its subscribers might not be met. On other hand, Teletalk had to compete with three big operators who are boosted by international investment for their expansion.
Despite the government is working to digitalize the country by 2021, the Teletalk has not been able to expand its network base in consistence with that vision. If we were able to ensure extensive network coverage, I believe the number of subscribers would surge rapidly.Daily Sun: What is Teletalk doing to increase subscribers?
Shahab Uddin: We have introduced a new package on Bangabandhu’s Birth Centenary. We have received a huge feedback. We have got responses from 650,000 subscribers within a month of its launch. It’s not such easy to have that kind of response in this saturated market.
Subscribers have good faith on Teletalk. It has been offering data packages and voice call service at cheaper rates to is subscribers. We have also reduced the rates to celebrate Bangabandhu centenary, that are cheaper than all other operators in the country.
We are working to remove bottlenecks of network that exist in some places. We are also working to identify the related other problems. We will overcome the problems and achieve success in our network expansion programme. The government, especially ICT Adviser to Prime Minister, has put emphasis on increasing investment.
Daily Sun: You have already made a proposal before ECNEC to expand Teletalk’s network base. Is it possible to go with that expansion plan cutting the proposed investment of 4G expansion and also achieve readiness of the 5G?
Shahab Uddin: None of the private operators went to Haor and Baor areas and we are going there. Under our Honourable Minister’s directive, we are working to bring marginally located people within our mobile network. We have established 400 BTS at the areas. We already got positive response. Last week, I visited Sunamganj and Habiganj haor areas. I found the local people happy with the initiative.
Now let’s come to your question. We have submitted a proposal considering election manifesto of the present government. We want to expand 4G network in each union. We have completed 4G expansion in almost every upazilas. The rest of unions and upazilas will get 4G network within 2023.
As per the election manifesto, the government will roll out 5G by 2023. We are working to achieve readiness of 5G.
We have reviewed the 5G project and submitted it before the ministry again. We are hopeful that the project will get approved soon.
Daily Sun: Do you think, after revision, the project will help to fulfill the government’s election pledge?
Shahab Uddin: We are hopeful.
Daily Sun: How many upazilas are yet to get 3G or 4G network coverage?
Shahab Uddin: We have fully covered 3G network in each upazila but are yet to get 4G coverage in some upazilas. So we are targeting those upazilas still out of coverage. We are continuing our work. We are now utilising the social obligatory fund (SOF) to expand the networks. We are hopeful to connect those remote upazilas with 4G network very soon. We are working to ensure 4G coverage in the areas using our own fund and also with government’s support.
Daily Sun: When Teletalk will complete the 4G coverage in every upazilas and unions?
Shahab Uddin: We are going to achieve complete network coverage within this financial year.
Daily Sun: We have heard that several companies have shown interest to invest on Teletalk. What is the progress on that?
Shahab Uddin: You are right. We have received a series of investment proposals. But it has been suspended due to Covid-19 pandemic. You know the telecom business is now passing stagnant time due to the pandemic. The investors from the countries like Saudi Arabia, Korea and Russia came up with investment proposals for Teletalk before the pandemic. Some want to invest on core network, some on 4G and some on other components. We have yet to complete the maturity level of those investments here. If they come, I can let you know.
Daily Sun: What are the challenges you are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic? What are doing to overcome the challenges?
Shahab Uddin: Our sales have been affected during the lockdown. The retail dealers could sell our packages. During the first two months of the pandemic, the revenue collection has been affected severely. Then we targeted the mobile financial services like Nagad and bKash to mitigate the losses. Then our data usages have shot up sharply as using of data has no lower limit of tariff. The voice service has a lower ceiling package of Tk 0.45 per minute. But data has no such ceiling. That’s why it increased significantly.
Daily Sun: How much was the loss during the pandemic?
Shahab Uddin: Teletalk has incurred around 15-20 percent loss in revenue in first two or three months of lockdown. Now we have started overcoming the loss.
We have now 5.4 million subscribers. We are very careful about distribution of SIM. In this regard, we have a strategic business plan. We are slowing down SIM distribution where there is network congestion, and trying to increase bandwidth capacity there. Monitoring of this has been intensified to find if there is any buffering of SIM usage. We are doing this because of our extra care for subscribers.
We are expanding our network through microwave technology in Haor and Baor areas where expansion of optical fiber link is impossible.
Even private companies are unwilling to show their interest to go there because huge cost involvement. Microwave have some constraints. With this we are not able to provide bandwidth as like as optical fibers. If there is any congestion of network, we slow down our SIM supply.
Our subscribers are taking SIMs for longtime use. We are, therefore, increasing the bandwidth where our network coverage is limited.
Daily Sun: What is Teletalk’s current subscribers base?
Shahab Uddin: Before two years, we have only a 3.3 million subscribers base. Now it’s increasing to 5.4 million thanks to the positive thinking of our policymakers about the Teletalk. It’s a great success for us. We are progressing fast. When I was taking the charge of Teletalk managing director, the BTS of Teletalk has around 3100, which is now 5200. Then we had not any 4G network. Now it has 3400 and over 5200 BTS for 2G. We are now designing our 4G network which will also give coverage to 3G with no separate investment. We are targeting to reach Teletalk subscribers coverage around 10 million within 2021.
Daily Sun: How can you make it possible? What are Teletalk’s current projects?
Shahab Uddin: We have some ongoing projects. Besides, we have limited subscribers in some potential areas which have huge network coverage. So we will go for retail marketing in those areas. We have five-year business plans. We are hopeful we will meet expansion goals.
Daily Sun: Can you tell more about the five-year business plan?
Shahab Uddin: The five-year plan is to make the Teletalk a profit-making company within the fiscal year 2022-23.
Daily Sun: What is the company’s present loss in revenue?
Shahab Uddin: Our gross revenue and cash flow is good. We have Tk 430 million positive cash flow in the balance sheet.But I believe, InSha Allah, we will make it a profitable enterprise within the FY2022-23.
Daily Sun: Why do you think the subscribers will switch to you Teletalk SIM?
Shahab Uddin: We cannot say yet the Teletalk SIM is the number 1. But I believe our people have emotions and passion for their country. They love their country and have commitment for the country. We saw this emotion, passion and commitment during the 1971 War of Liberation. When we tell them this is your country’s phone, the people respond positively. When we tell them the money earned by Teletalk will be your country’s money that will not be sent off to abroad, they feel their emotion.
Other three cell phone companies are now local and this also positive. We are transparent to shareholders. The country is ours and we love this country. After achieving full network coverage, if we can increase Teletalk SIM sales. We have first introduced our networks at Chittagong hill tracts and haor and baor areas. The subscribers responded positively. In last one month we have been able to sell 650,000 SIMs. Most of them are active users.
We are also providing digital services to the government’s recruitment process. We are also planning to cover all the government officials with Teletalk. We have also signed MoU with the Bangladesh Army for our network expansion.
We have only 25.5 Mhz spectrum and we have a plan to expand our spectrum for expansion of the subscribers.
Daily Sun: Do you have any plan for the Mujib Year?
Shahab Uddin: Every day we are distributing free SIMs and data to 100 subscribers through prio.com competition in celebration of Mujib Year. They will have to use it within 100 days to enjoy the offers. We are expecting to get 10,000 new subscribers from it. We have also a plan to give SIMs with discounted data rate for our subscribers who are participating in the competition. We have also introduced a Mujib Corner at Teletalk office.
Daily Sun: Thank you very much.
Shahab Uddin: Thank you.