[An E-Bangladesh commentary.]
Bangladeshi investors were irked by the news that Grameen Phone, the largest cellular company in Bangladesh was fined another $25 million, twice in four month. Grameen Phone is scheduled to initiate a public offering in the capital market next June and the proposed stock offering will be the biggest ever in Bangladesh. However the investors’ hopes will probably be shattered as renewed charges were made that GP let an ISP operator AccessTel involved in illegal VoIP business.
GP, the country’s largest cell phone operator, and Malaysian mobile phone operator DiGi Telecommunications have been also accused of “conniving” with Bangladeshi internet service provider (ISP) AccessTel in the “punishable crime.” Norwegian state-owned telecoms heavyweight Telenor owns major stakes in both GP and DiGi.
Sub-inspector Manzur Ali Khan of Gulshan Police Station has confirmed that Zian Shah Kabir, assistant director of Legal and Licensing Division of Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), filed the case (No. 46) on Jan 16. The former GP officials accused in the case are CEOs Eric Aas and Ola Ree, Technical Director Thor Randhaug, Chief Technical Officer Yogesh Sanjeev Malik, and Sales and Marketing Director Mehboob Chowdhury.
This time they have sued employees of the organization which will have a huge impact among the foreign investors in the country. The telecom operators sell their telecom services to all providers. How can they be made 100% responsible for something illegal done with their service which they have little control of? Especially in this case BTRC is silent and is unable to do anything against the illegal (as per BTRC’s terms) operators who used the service. Its interesting they even implicated a foreign company and hope they have proper reason and evidence behind it otherwise it may lead to diplomatic issues between the countries.
The use of VOIP technology in Bangladesh’s telecom Sector was not new. BTTB has been using VOIP since 2003 through its 012 access code. BTRC has been allowing the BTTB to use VoIP calls without any license. However because of cheap setup costs and simple technology hundreds of private VOIP operators sprung up tapping a huge market.
According to a New Age article in 2006 BTTB was all set to monopolize its control over the international voice market. The controversy began in January when after the recent caretaker government took power last January BTRC cracked down on those small operators declaring VOIP illegal and seizing their equipments. Suddenly Bangladesh was disconnected from the whole world. Non Residence Bangladeshis were the hardest hits in this strategic move as they had to bear increased cost set by BTTB’s monopoly. Those small operators were labeled as criminals and their operations closed down. It is true that BTTB got it revenue pumped up and international VOIP rates went double to triple in the following months all in the expense of these NRBs.
A recent advertisement in a UK based Bangla channel boasts that calling cards (using VOIP) are available for 850 minutes conversation from UK to Bangladesh at the rate of only 5 pounds (about 700 Taka). In spite of the recent devaluation of US Dollar the VOIP rates are dropping like anything. According to Carrier Exchange Bangladesh mobile rate is very low which was almost double a few months earlier when most of the grey operators remain closed. And now it’s even lower than pre-January 2007. BTRC is yet to provide fresh licenses for new operators as it proposed. So it is evident that so called illegal VOIP operators are back in business and are cashing in a major share of market.
How they can do it under the strict eyes of BTRC joint task force against VOIP operations? After seizing all equipments the small operators are not likely to have any capacity to reinvest. So the question is who are investing? According to sources a number of VOIP operators have revived making members of armed forces (in service and retired high officials) as their partners for their protection. So these people are always remaining in the grey zone because the task force can’t do anything against them. The corruption remains while only the pawns and accomplices are changed.
And there is another question. Who are behind these operators? Is BTTB’s mobile service Teletalk anyway involved in this business without proper license from BTRC? These low costs portray that something is out of ordinary here. One can argue that if the VOIP equipments seized by RAB were employed thus reducing the investment cost such low costs can be offered by the operators. So somebody should have the answers somewhere.
Whereas big telecom operators remain easy catch for BTRC and probably they are scapegoats for those who were cashing in a lot of profit. There is a huge amount of money playing here and they are not thinking about the implications of harassing such big players. How can VOIP termed illegal when some are let to do monopoly and others are criminalized, BTTB being also a mobile operator?
BTRC announced its telecommunication policy for licensing VOIP operators using arbitrary requirements like NRBs are not allowed to apply. Within a few months we will be able to see the new operators. There is a great deal of lobbying and underhand for it. If the processes are not transparent we will not be able to see a corruption free telecom sector. The path BTRC has chosen is to unsettle the foreign investors by suing the employees which may have a negative effect in countries foreign investment. And the small investors of the country aspiring to invest in a telecom big giant may be deprived. While those grey zones will remain undiscovered because of unknown reasons and some people are making a lot of money which can be termed illegal according to BTRC.