Grameenphone CEO Azman calls for reduced regulations to boost innovation, competition among mobile operators

In an interview with, the Bangladeshi CEO of the firm suggests that reducing regulations will foster healthy competition and innovation in the industry

Golam Mortuja
Published : 22 March 2024, 09:33 PM
Updated : 22 March 2024, 09:33 PM

Yasir Azman, the CEO of Bangladesh’s leading mobile network Grameenphone, sees the increasing use of smartphones and data as the primary challenge in fully leveraging the technological advancements of the telecommunications sector.

As the industry gears up for transition to 5G, he emphasises the importance of ensuring that all segments of society, particularly marginalised groups, access and benefit from the technology.

He warned that failing to do so will only widen the gap between those who benefit from these advancements and those who do not.

Azman advocated for greater competition in the sector, which he believes will ultimately lead to better outcomes for customers.

He suggested that reducing regulations would foster healthy competition and innovation in the industry.

The first Bangladeshi CEO of Grameenphone, a leading player in the country's telecom industry since 1997, believes there is room for increased investment in the sector. However, he sees limited opportunities because of the lack of dispute resolution mechanisms.

Grameenphone and three other mobile operators recently received unified licences to offer advanced technology services, such as 5G. Azman predicts that 5G might debut in Bangladesh by 2025 or later.

Earlier this month, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission granted the unified licences to the country's four main mobile operators - Grameenphone, Robi, Teletalk, and Banglalink - allowing them to launch 5G services.

This means they can offer a range of next-generation technology services, including 5G, without needing separate licences for different generations of mobile networks.

Azman, who became the president of the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh in February, discussed telecom sector issues in an interview with, including the unified licence.

Azman's journey with Grameenphone is notable. He started as chief marketing officer in 2015, after working extensively with Telenor, Grameenphone's parent company. He then became deputy CEO in 2017 before assuming the role of Grameenphone's first Bangladeshi CEO in February 2020.

The discussion covered many aspects of Bangladesh's telecom industry, like operator competition, government policies, and dispute resolution.

He also talked about profit and loss, as well as issues such as call drops, potential internet price hikes, and the need for an investment-friendly atmosphere.

Question: What are your plans and preparations after obtaining the unified licence, considering the government's push for quick implementation?

Yasir Azman: This licence isn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. The government has stressed the need for swift implementation, as mentioned by State Minister for Post, Telecommunication and Information Technology Zunaid Ahmed Palak.

We have been preparing for this for three years and are focused on implementation. Consolidating our licences has simplified regulatory compliance and streamlined operations.

Question: Is the government's decision too late? Could more have been done earlier?

Yasir Azman: Good actions have no time limit, but it is better to act sooner. Additionally, the scope of services has expanded from nine to 14, including IoT, cloud services, cybersecurity, analytics, AI, and fixed wireless access, which are crucial for a tech-driven society.

Earlier, operator audits used to cause investor anxiety as they could have been conducted at any point in the past. However, audits are now restricted to a maximum of two years back.

Significant attention has been placed on cybersecurity to bolster national infrastructure security, addressing both local and global concerns. Despite the delay, Bangladesh is making strides toward a smarter, more secure future.

Question: This licence also brings up the issue of 5G which is much discussed among common people. Are you ready to offer the service? How does it benefit regular users?

Answer: The unified licence and 5G are different. Getting the unified licence doesn't mean an instant 5G rollout.

We have been focusing on building a strong fibre backbone for two years to prepare for 5G.

While the impact on regular users may be limited, industries like manufacturing and healthcare and large-scale projects like port or airport automation will benefit. Nevertheless, in Bangladesh, enhancing our 4G service should be a top priority.

Our priority should be on enhancing fiberisation and upgrading networks. The success of 5G hinges on its practical application in industries, improving efficiency, and aligning with our vision for a Smart Bangladesh. We need a clear plan, not just obtaining the licence.

Question: When can we expect 5G to be available?

Yasir Azman: I believe if we start working on some use cases now, it could be 2025 or later. There might be a few initial cases on a smaller scale. Overall, I see the unified licence as a positive step. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's ICT Affairs Advisor Sajeeb Wazed Joy played a significant role, along with the efforts of BTRC and the State Minister for ICT Palak. While there are still some issues, I believe they can be resolved with a positive attitude.

Question: With 1.4 billion global users and 120 million in India using 5G, will Bangladesh lag?

Yasir Azman: Bangladesh adapts to technology quickly. We have both basic phones and smartphones. To embrace 5G and digital lifestyles, we need policies and initiatives to increase the use of smartphones. The use of data in Bangladesh has stalled, so we must address this to boost smartphone adoption. Simply having the device isn't enough; we need to tackle deeper issues. While preparing for 5G, our main challenge is to expand smartphone and data usage.

Question: With 30 percent of Bangladeshis using the internet and nearly 50 percent using smartphones, why are these numbers still relatively low? How can this rate be improved?

Yasir Azman: The vision of a Smart Bangladesh hinges on widespread connectivity, yet many lack access to modern technology, widening the gap between the tech-savvy and those left behind.

Awareness of digital services is crucial. While the government has digitised many services, more effort is needed to educate the public about their availability. For instance, services like applying for a driving licence digitally are still unknown to many.

Moreover, smartphone ownership is essential for reaping the benefits of these services.

We need to see how the government is reforming taxes to boost the availability of smartphones and lower prices, as well as how it can support local entrepreneurs in smartphone manufacturing. Additionally, discouraging the import of basic phones could further encourage smartphone adoption.

Question: What's the current smartphone usage rate among your customers?

Yasir Azman: It is fifty-fifty. The main challenge in technology delivery is the lack of smartphones among people. Without them, providing services or introducing 5G becomes difficult. Transitioning half of our customers to 4G while many still use 2G is tough. However, I'm optimistic. Initiatives like unified licences and government support, such as device loans and tax reductions, can boost adoption rates quickly. Bangladeshis have a strong tech-friendly inclination, evident in the widespread adoption of mobile financial services like bKash.

Question: What are your expectations regarding the regulator's role in implementing 5G?

Yasir Azman: Two critical factors are needed to efficiently deliver services: sustainable pricing and investment. Dark fibre is essential for cost-effective operations; without it, relying solely on bandwidth increases expenses, affecting both customers and the economy adversely. Moreover, the absence of dispute resolution facilities hinders foreign investment, which is crucial for Bangladesh's growth. While unifying licences is a positive step, addressing these remaining challenges is vital.

Question: What is being done about the complaint that data prices are too high for the middle class?

Yasir Azman: Our data costs are quite low, less than a paisa per megabyte. However, as data usage increases – now averaging around 6GB to 7GB per customer – the overall cost may rise. Customers' needs are evolving, with some prioritising seamless connections for freelancing or low latency for gaming. Spending too much time on social media might make one feel like they're using up money. Balancing usage is key to maximising benefits.

Looking ahead, with customers needing more data, investing in efficient technologies like AI can help keep prices down. Revising the tax structure can also help. It's a collaborative effort beyond just the operators.

Question: Data prices changed twice in November. How did it affect customers? Also, internet usage dropped in the first two months of this year. Is it related to the new prices?

Yasir Azman: We noticed a link between fewer customers and the price changes. Why do we offer three days of data instead of seven? Some customers prefer cheaper, shorter plans, impacting usage and causing a drop in subscribers. Additionally, many users now stick to one SIM as they consume similar amounts of data over a week.

I believe the industry shouldn't be heavily regulated. Operators need some limits to avoid misleading customers. For instance, offering 50 gigabytes in three days is unrealistic. Let competition determine offer durations, like one day, one hour, or one month. Fair competition benefits customers and drives innovation. Let's view the internet positively and avoid overregulation.

Question: Concerns persist about the quality of service, particularly regarding call drops. How are you addressing these issues?

Yasir Azman: In Bangladesh, our call drop rates are among the lowest, despite recent reports suggesting otherwise. It's essential to consider the number of drops relative to the total call volume. We are addressing challenges in about 600 areas where tower installation is difficult, including key locations like the court and MP Hostel.

In the city, placing towers on tall buildings with multiple owners is challenging. Previously, a five-story building could have a rooftop site, but now, with 20 floors and 40 owners, deciding on placement is difficult. Dhaka's evolving urban landscape requires us to find solutions on our own, as there's no one to guide us.

Question: The government's audit objection with Grameenphone amounts to about Tk 120 billion. You have paid Tk 20 billion. How do you see this issue being resolved?

Yasir Azman: We have already deposited Tk 20 billion. Many objections, including those in court and with the National Board of Revenue, have been resolved. BTRC's 2G issue is also settled. While there are no more dues, we need an amicable solution to review what remains beyond the deposited amount. This ongoing situation needs closure.

As an operator and foreign investor, this ongoing situation breeds uncertainty and caution among potential investors. Improved relations with the regulator over the past four years make this the right time to resolve these issues. Doing so will send a positive signal, showing the government's dedication to addressing concerns and attracting foreign investment.

Question: What's your take on the market, especially regarding the major operators?

Yasir Azman: Telecom mergers are happening globally due to the difficulty of supporting many operators. Shrinking margins in voice calls are a concern across Asia and Europe. In Bangladesh, maintaining four operators is tough because hefty investment is needed for digital services, raising concerns about profitability as data demands grow.

[The English version, written by Arshi Fatiha Quazi, is a summary of the interview taken in Bangla]