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Let’s not kill the golden goose

  • Published at 05:10 pm October 26th, 2018
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More needs to be done to free up the country’s telecom sector

The telecom sector in Bangladesh has come a long way. 

There’s hardly any doubt that it has contributed much to our nation-building. Firstly, it has connected the masses across the country. And when it comes to contributing to the national economy, this sector alone now accounting for 6.3% of the GDP. Therefore, the telecom industry should be considered as a golden goose for the government. The government has a responsibility to keep this goose alive.

The time has come to assess how the telecom operators have been doing in terms of their own business. Apart from one company, all others have been incurring losses over the years, and they had to keep investment flowing in order to remain alive. 

What have the shareholders of the loss making companies actually received? Almost nothing -- if there’s no profit, how would the shareholders be benefited? The government-owned operator itself has been experiencing losses for many years now.

Let’s have a look at the investment scenario in the sector. Why would the shareholders of loss-making companies be interested to invest further, unless there was a purpose. The obstacles on the way to invest more are many. Despite that, the investments in this sector have multiplied in the last five years.

In 2013, 3G technology was introduced, for which the operators had to invest about Tk32,000 crore, against which their revenue, until now, stands at about Tk7,000cr. Now, who is compensating the rest of the amount?

Then came 4G, even though the market and the customers weren’t ready for it. The operators have invested massively -- they have also bought spectrum -- “the radio frequencies allocated to the mobile industry and other sectors for communication over the airwaves -- at an exuberantly high price. 

Despite these efforts, the spread of 4G is still limited. Now, have we ever wanted to find out the reason? The reasons are very well known, but the effort to solve these are too slow. 

Blaming the companies wouldn’t be wise; rather, favourable policy support is required. Otherwise, there’s a possibility that more than one company may go bankrupt and cease to operate. If you dig deeper, you can see that they haven’t made their losses due to telecom services -- rather, the need to stay updated with the new technology has led them here. 

It’s high time the authorities considered the telecom companies as businesses, and not as philanthropic organizations. These are the golden geese, and the authorities have a responsibility to provide nutrition, and keep them up and running for their own good.

Now, the question is: Are the existing policies business-friendly? 

There was a time when the operators could operate everything when they started their business more than 20 years ago. They could operate as International Gateway (IGW) operators, Interconnection Exchange (ICX) operators, fibre-layers, and tower-setters. 

They had to give these up due to the changes in government policies. These operations were given to other companies, whose businesses are actually thriving, whereas the telecom operators are making losses with their increasing operating costs. 

The telecom business requires a coordinated approach in which the roles of IGW, ICX, and the Nationwide Telecommunication Transmission Network (NTTN) companies are highly important. Most of the time, the problems are related to the supply of electricity and fibre disruptions, which the operators don’t control. Now, what policies do we have to solve these problems? It’s funny that we have hundreds of ISPs who are still failing to go to the grassroots, while the operators are also being prevented from going there. 

If you assess these companies seriously, you will find that these serve as the government’s strategic vehicles for digitizing the nation in order to make people’s lives easier. They have been trying their best to serve the government. Their network is being used for other services such as ride-sharing, financial services, e-commerce, and OTT apps. Why don’t we also allow the operators to be involved in these services? 

If we only consider these companies as charitable connection catalysts, we may think of reducing the price of spectrum after formulating a well-thought-out spectrum policy. Formulating a spectrum policy is very important for the country’s digital journey. 

The work for introducing the Internet of Things (IoT) for smart homes, factories, and cities has already begun. Spectrum is going to play a big role in IoT solutions and Big Data.

If we don’t formulate business-friendly policies, these digital dreams will not see the light of day. Currently, the behaviour of the authorities is more like that of a muzzler, not of a facilitator. One has to remember that the telecom sector is, indeed, the golden goose, and we surely don’t want to kill it. Otherwise, the steady flow of golden eggs may stop. 

Ekram Kabir is a story-teller and columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]