RANGOON — Norway’s Telenor serves about 18 million customers across Burma with voice and data services, competing with Qatar’s Ooredoo and state-owned MPT. About 64 percent of Telenor’s customers are active data users. Recently, The Irrawaddy spoke with Telenor’s Burma chief executive officer Lars Erik Tellmann to gain some insight into the industry’s current situation and Telenor’s plans for next year.
How are you preparing for the new telecom company that will be partly public and partly owned by Vietnam’s Viettel—supposedly the final telecom company in Burma?
First of all, this was never a surprise for us; this will be the fourth operator [in Burma]. It was expected. We’ve had plans since the beginning as to how we would run in the market. Outside of that, we will see any competition entering the market as healthy. We know that competition drives innovation and new ideas, and makes us become better. We welcome competition, and it’s healthy to initiate performance in terms of our development. How we will prepare for the fourth operator? I can’t tell you exactly, but of course we have plans, as we always do. We are able to please our customer’s in the best way possible. We still have the happiest customers, and this is the best way to prepare for our competitors. There is a third party that is doing a survey for us—surveying 5,000 customers—so we get results different areas to see how we’re doing and to promote what’s best for customers. Last year, we had the highest survey results among the three operators. We want customers to love us, not just like us. We are always looking at how we create products. If we continue this, it’s the best protection for us from any kind of competition.
Will Telenor expand its investments next year?
Yes, I see many people talking about what they will invest. But that’s the future. I can say that Telenor has made investments and already used US$1.5 billion in the two years we have been in operation here and in the three years since we came to this country. What we will use in the future will depend on how the market develops, but we will definitely invest more.
Could you explain the rumors that Telenor will withdraw its investment and leave Burma?
A lot of people are confused about this. We have already invested $1.5 billion here, and we have not sent back any of this as profit. No money has been repatriated from Burma. All of our money has been reinvested to create better products and to help roll out our network. That’s a choice we’ve made, that we want to invest more.
What about Telenor’s future plans to expand the mobile money business?
Wave money is still in the early stages and more investment is going to take place from the company, for sure.
Is the mobile money business a good investment here?
We think that, in the long term, it is a business. Look around you. In this society, few people have access to a bank account. We believe that access to a bank account to transfer money, and to conduct payments, is important. It’s something that should be available to more people than it’s currently available to now. That’s why we can use a digital platform much more efficiently. If you want to do it the traditional way, you have to build a physical bank. Our service is unique because it combines mobile technology, so we can reach more people.
How much of Burma’s population can Telenor cover right now?
Our goal is to cover 90 percent of the population by the end of the year.
What are the major challenges to reaching this goal?
Some of the greatest challenges are employment issues and the inability to roll out in ethnic areas where conflict makes it difficult to build. Some areas also lack infrastructure, which also makes it difficult. To date, we’ve invested $1.5 billion, and we anticipate continuing to spend money to improve our coverage and quality and roll out “real” 4G services. We launched 4G services in Naypyidaw and will expand to a few more cities soon. There’s no reason for cities like Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyidaw not to have networks as modern as other developed cities.