Digital Trailblazer | Mahtab Uddin Ahmed | Leading Robi towards digital excellence

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Mahtab Uddin Ahmed, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director expounds on the telco’s role in ensuring new digital experiences for the customers and becoming the digital champion of the industry in the process
As the first homegrown Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Robi you have been in-charge of transforming Robi into a next-generation digital company. Can you please elaborate on what this journey has been like? How have you propelled Robi into a next-generation digital company?

Robi had started its transformation journey way back in 2010. I was fortunate to be part of the journey from the very beginning in the capacity of a CFO back then. The journey involved a complete turnaround for the company. Starting from resetting the value proposition, to the way we approached the market was revamped. By the time I had taken over the job as Robi’s Managing Director and CEO in 2016, the focus had shifted to orchestrating much needed digital transformation of the company. Merger was a critical stepping stone in this journey. Done successfully, the largest ever merger of the country and the first ever in the telecom sector allowed us necessary scale to make a significant impact in the market through our digital transformation journey.
The core of the digital transformation involves disrupting our traditional telco business model; selling talk-time and some data packs were not going to ensure our sustainability in the long run. The reason being, the way people and the society will function in the future is very different from what it is today. Digital technology will be enhancing peoples’ life experience in every possible way. In order to prepare for such an all-encompassing role of our business, we are transforming every aspect of it. Be it sales, customer service, distribution network, reskilling employees, organizational culture – we have brought in measures to digitize each of these elements to ensure greater efficiency with the view to future-proofing our business. The entire journey hinges on our leadership in 4G technology, which we believe will be the vehicle through which people will experience the digital future.

Can you share with us in detail Robi’s response to the pandemic? What were the challenges you observed and how did Robi rise above them? Also, how are you dealing with the second wave?

First and foremost, our priority has been to ensure safety and security of our employees, ensuring our customers were served to their satisfaction, and to ensure that our network across the country was up and running during the pandemic. In addition to that, making sure our distribution was kept functional was another concern for us. We saw our responsibility towards the society as a core element of our business, and hence deployed our excellence in digital analytics to help the Health Authority to tackle the pandemic in a scientific data driven manner from the very beginning.

Just like everyone else, the pandemic took us by surprise, forcing us to rethink the way our business operated. We suddenly had to work from home without much preparation, but thanks to our digital preparedness, we managed to sail through smoothly. As the first wave intensified last year, we had to deal with a large chunk of our customers leaving our network due to financial hardship; many headed for their village residence as the factories were closed. This caused our network in the rural area to come under tremendous stress.

There was a time last year when we had a daily revenue shortfall of 4 crore taka. With the revenue sliding, the entire company focused on cost efficiency. Network optimization was the key to deal with the sudden influx of people in the rural areas. We had reduced our data packs by up to 60% to help our customers under financial stress. We also offered 10 minutes talk-time and 50 MB data for free to bring back our customers to the network last year as well as this year. Using advanced data analytics solutions, we tried to offer personalized services to our customers.

Honouring the contributions made by the front-line doctors, we had offered 33 GB data for free for six months to around 27,000 registered doctors of DGHS last year. In the wake of the second wave this year, we have recently organized a campaign named #ThankYouLifeSavers, to pay tribute to the doctors. As part of the campaign, we are also offering 33 GB data free for six months for the DGHS registered doctors this year. Besides, we have distributed food to 10,000 families in remote parts of the country with the help of Senakalyan Sangstha.

Robi was the only company that sent out SMSs alerting our customers on a real-time basis whenever they entered into an area that had high COVID-19 infection rates across the country. Robi was the only operator that had the data analytics capabilities to pull off this technological breakthrough in the industry. We established our supremacy in the field of data analytics by taking the lead in the industry in developing a crowd-sourcing based AI solution to pre-emptively detect likely COVID-19 infection in the country. The complex data models developed by our data scientists helped the Health Authority to deploy its resources where it was needed most. This exercise was further bolstered by the geo-fencing service we offered to the local administration to track the movement of the people as the pandemic spread.

It was very satisfying for us to see that 333 emerged as the crisis centre helpline during the pandemic, as Robi had set up this hotline in collaboration with ICT Division’s Inspire to Innovate (a2i) programme. Since the beginning of the pandemic, this platform has handled close to 3 crore calls from citizens asking for all sorts of support from the government, including food requests. With regards to digital education, Robi-10 Minute School, as expected, was the trend setter by providing quality educational content to millions of students all over the country for free of cost. In a nutshell, we are determined to leverage this pandemic crisis to advance our digital vision as the virus continues to lurk around us.

Robi Axiata is the country’s second largest telecom operator. What sets Robi apart from its competitors?

There are many aspects to the mobile telecom business. Historically, we had been very good at many of these aspects, but never the best in any one. When we were getting ready for 4G, I took a firm stand in front of our board that we must be the best in 4G in the market, as that’s where the future lies for the industry. Looking back, I feel completely vindicated to have taken a radical stand at that time – for me that is at the core of what sets us apart in the market. Robi is ready to dominate the digital era to come.

Simply put, there is no ambiguity with regards to the purpose behind everything we do at Robi. Our vision is very simple – that is to be the digital champion in the industry. On the market front, we made a loud and clear statement as soon as 4G was launched in February, 2018. Robi made its intent clear by rolling out 4G in all of the 64 districts on the very first day of the launch of the service.
That momentum is being carried even today as we have become the first operator to deploy 4G to all our network sites [13,600+] across the country. This has helped us to ensure 98% population coverage of 4G service – the widest 4G coverage in the country. Robi has also widely used dynamic spectrum sharing technology to maximize network capacity. We were also the first operator in Bangladesh to launch VoLTE service last year. As of now, Robi is the only operator to have organized a successful trial run of 5G service in the country.

We have all been working diligently to digitize our product and service portfolio with a heavy dose of innovation. Our new tagline, ‘Life e Notun Experience’ leaves no doubt in our customers mind regarding what to expect from us – that we are here to enhance their life experience by providing them the most innovative set of digital lifestyle services available in the market. With more than 70% of our subscriber-base being data users, we can confidently say that customers are feeling drawn to our unique digital proposition.

Another unique feature of Robi that sets us apart from our competitors is that we are the only operator to have created a subsidiary named RedDot Digital Limited, to provide technical support to us in order to deliver our vision for digital innovation. We have also been a trend-setter in the market in creating a number of platforms that are making a real difference in peoples’ daily digital life.

For example, Robi has created the largest online school of the country, Robi-10 Minute School. Over the last 5 years, this online school has truly revolutionized the digital education landscape in Bangladesh. The pandemic has only enhanced its appeal among students from all walks of life, as millions of them are getting hooking on this platform to continue education while the traditional education system remains closed.

We are immensely proud to have created the largest app store of Bangladesh, Many in the industry scoffed at us for embarking on this project, however, that little experiment has now been endorsed by the ICT Division of the Government as the national app store. With 12,000 active app developers, bdapps now hosts 23,000 apps. It is by far the fastest growing app developers’ community in Bangladesh. Since its inception, we have disbursed more than 55 crore taka to the app developers as revenue. This is only the beginning though, we have a big vision for this platform.

For two consecutive years, Robi has been recognized as the most advanced operating company in terms of AI maturity and Data Analytics capabilities within Axiata Group Berhad. As I mentioned earlier, we have been leveraging our industry leading expertise in this field to support the government in dealing with the pandemic. Besides, we have taken up a number of projects to monetize our advanced capabilities in terms of skill development to provide analytics as a service to not just our business, but also to the wider business community.
Our digital vision is premised on the creation of a modern, agile, and digital organization that thrives on people who embrace digital learning and collaborate to deliver. This, for me, is our biggest strength to achieve our vision.

Can you please share the details about the new spectrum Robi acquired in the recently concluded auction? How do you think this will help your digital vision? Also, how does the new spectrum increase your competitiveness in the 4G market?

Our relationship with our customers have changed fundamentally over the years. Our customers now view us as their gateway into digital lifestyle! Interestingly, the technology that can deliver a digital lifestyle is 4G technology, not 2G, not even 3G!

In this context, the new spectrum will certainly give a massive boost to our digital vision, as historically, we are the only operator to deliver 4G services using all the available spectrum bands to the industry – 900MHz, 1800MHz, and 2100MHz. Besides, we have plans to deploy 80% of our total spectrum to support 4G service by the end of this year. This means, when it comes to quality of 4G service, Robi is simply unbeatable.

You see, there are three main factors that determine the level of quality experienced by customers. One is the number of 4G sites to ensure seamless 4G coverage, another is the amount of spectrum used by an operator for 4G and the last one is the number of customers an operator serves using the number of sites and the spectrum in its possession.

If you consider these factors, you will find that Robi offers the best quality proposition in the industry. The market leader has a higher number of sites compared to us, but they serve a lot more customers with per MHz of spectrum. Moreover, we have allocated the highest percentage of our spectrum for 4G in the industry. In the case of the third ranked operator, they have a far lower number of 4G sites than us. That makes us the undisputed champion in the industry in 4G service.

The digital future will be primarily delivered through 4G for a long time to come. Robi, from the very first day of the launch of its 4G service back in 2018 has made it clear that we are determined to dominate this space. Despite having a far smaller subscriber base compared to the market leader, we are almost at par with them in terms of 4G market share. More than 70% of our subscribers are data users. So, it’s very clear that Robi is winning BIG in the data market.

What kind of policy support does the telco industry require from the government to ensure its robust growth?

According to GSMA’s recent study, Accelerating Digital Transformation in Bangladesh, Bangladesh has the third-highest tax burden on the mobile sector in the world. The tax contribution of the mobile sector in Bangladesh is considerably higher than the average for Asia Pacific and other regional averages. In 2019, the total tax contribution of the mobile sector, amounting to BDT 119 billion ($1.4 billion), represented about 44% of total sector revenue. This is substantially higher than the Asia Pacific average (24%) and the global average.

While mobile market revenue accounted for 1.1% of Bangladesh’s GDP, the sector’s tax and fee payments accounted for around 4.4% of total government tax revenue (2019). This means that the mobile tax contribution is 4.2 times its size in the economy. No other industry can match the telecom industry in terms of its role as enabler of economic development, yet we find the mobile sector is being subjected to a corporate tax rate similar to that of the tobacco industry (45%).

What we need is to align mobile sector taxation levels with the rest of the economy. For example, reduce the corporate tax for non-public mobile companies from 45% to 32.5% and for public mobile operators from 40% to 25%. Besides, we also need a reduction of the minimum turnover tax from 2% to 0.5% to align it with the rest of the economy. Moreover, removal of the SIM tax (BDT 200) will go a long way in bringing 46% of the people of the country who are yet to join the mobile network.

We also need to assess whether the current fragmented licensing regime is the best way to achieve the nation’s digital vision. Having separate licenses for ICX, NTTN, IGW, IIG, etc. is clearly not serving the nation’s interest. We need to acknowledge it and work towards a Unified Licensing regime which allows the market the freedom to play to its strength in order to serve the customers’ needs. We need the government to do a comprehensive study on the industry so that we can have a healthy dialogue to come to a sensible regulatory structure for the industry.

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