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‘Mobile network by itself is an instrument that works as an enabler’

Photo : Arif Mahmud Riad

In Bangladesh’s technology arena, TIM Nurul Kabir is a known face. Having helmed the top policymaking positions of different trade bodies related to IT and telecom, Mr Kabir has seen it all, firsthand, in a career spanning nearly three decades.

He has just retired from his position as the CEO and secretary general of Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (AMTOB) on September 30. Fintech team went to his AMTOB office to talk about his career, his vision and the country’s telecom sector. Here is an excerpt of that interview for our readers.

FINTECH: You have a diversified and an illustrious career of about three decades in the country’s technology sector. Can you shed some light on your career?

Actually it is 29 years—my professional career. I was a business graduate and studied Finance. But my knack was always with the latest technological innovations. During our time, there was no such academic discipline called Computer Science, so it was from the industry from where I had gained my technical knowledge.

I have to give credit to Dutch multinational company AKZO-NOBEL of which I was the head of IT and deputy comptroller. Back then we used to work with mini computers and I was a system administrator. We used to work with Macintosh computer and I had gained extensive experience during my tenure with that company.

After my 12 year career with that Dutch company, I became an entrepreneur and worked in the software industry. I was once elected as the senior vice president of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) and worked a lot for the development of that organization. I provided support to various software companies as well. At one time I became the senior vice president of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and was in the board for three years.

In AMTOB, I have spent the last six years of my life. During my tenure as its CEO and Secretary General, AMTOB has transformed into a national organization of Bangladesh.

Throughout my time in AMTOB, my objective was to find out how it would be beneficial for the government, the state, the customers and of course for the industry. My primary goal was to help in chalking out the policy and regulatory framework for a win-win situation so the country and industry can reap mutual benefits as a trade organization. I can say that AMTOB is now a highly accepted organization among the stakeholders and that’s something I am very proud of.

FINTECH: What is the necessity of an organization like AMTOB in Bangladesh?

In the context of business houses, you need a trade body for their policy and regulation. Just like BGMEA is for garment manufacturers, BASIS is for software and IT service companies, AMTOB is for the mobile telecom industry. All mobile operators and vendors like Nokia, Huawei and Ericsson are members of AMTOB. This association is completely related with telecommunication.

The telecommunication industry needs a voice to express itself and a platform to work with the policies and AMTOB is working in these areas. In India, there is the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) which performs the task that AMTOB does in Bangladesh. There isn’t any organization like this in Sri Lanka but you will find similar organizations in Australia, Singapore and other countries.

FINTECH: During your times as a core member of different trade bodies, major changes and upgrades in the policies and technologies have taken place. Can you name few?

I would first say the introduction of 3G, 4G launching and Spectrum Management. Launching of 3G, 4G (along with technology neutrality) had been a key driver in proliferation of internet in Bangladesh. Along with, spectrum management and technology neutrality were vital for the Industry. In this whole process, I had the opportunity to work closely with the Government’s policy makers and advised in this regard.

I was also the core member for Biometric SIM verification. This was another revolutionary milestone for the Telecom sector where I am pleased to be one of the core committee members beside Policy makers and Regulatory bodies. This is one of the most successful achievements that had given each mobile customer an authentic identity.

I can also say about my active participation in drafting the National e-commerce policy, ICT Policy, VAS guidelines, National Telecom Policy with Ministry and Regulators. In particular, existing NTP is well outdated where relentless effort has been put through stakeholder engagement, op-ed, talk show etc.

To keep pace with the rapid transformation of Telecom and ICT sector, I have tried to act as Policy advisor to the Government and the Mobile Industry and facilitated in resolving a notable number of critical and long pending issues.

FINTECH: After the roll-out of 4G, there has been a massive shift in the consumer’s perception of telecom service. Now it’s not about just voice rather data is the king. What is your opinion in this regard?

You have spotted it right. Earlier telecom was just about quality voice service but now it has become a multi-dimensional service. After the arrival of 4G, people are now more attracted towards data in comparison with voice service.

The demand for voice is decreasing and people want to use data. This is no longer just a telephone industry; rather it’s a digital service provider industry. This is because the mobile network by itself is an instrument that works as an enabler. So the government should promote policy to embrace the change of time. The digital services enabled by a smartphone are the vehicle to that change. That’s why the usage of smartphone should be encouraged and made affordable at the customer level.

The thing is, smartphone penetration in our country is still 40 percent, among which the number of 4G enabled handsets is very small although the country has rolled out 4G technology across the country. If you take a look at Myanmar, smartphone penetration is 75 percent there whereas we still have 60 percent of people using feature phone or basic phone.

We have to understand that the tetechnology is advancing very rapidly around the world. For example, it took 120 years from the first industrial revolution to the second industrial revolution, 80 years from the second industrial revolution to the third. But it took only took 20 years to arrive at the fourth industrial revolution which is technology based.

The development is happening so quickly. We are now using things like Uber, airbnb. They are offering us accommodation and means of transport even though they don’t own any taxi or building, they are just using technology.

FINTECH: Do you think the Bangladesh market is ready for 5G? Does 4G arrive before its time?

When 3G investment was first made, there was the cart before the horse. The supply side was created but not the demand. For the deployment of 3G, around Tk 32,000 crore was spent but the return on investment on 3G was only Tk 6,000 crore. So the question is why did it happen? This is because 3G enabled handsets were not available in the beginning. The way it should have been promoted and facilitated, didn’t happen.

It was unfortunate that didn’t happen but I would say 4G arrived on time and there was no way from not adopting the 4G technology. Although it came to our country later than others, it would not have been wise to delay it any further. 5G is not ready yet and we need to prepare and do research for that platform. 5G will start by 2020 but many are trying to introduce it earlier with their trial runs and some intend to start its trial run during the next world cup.

The fact is technology is dynamic, and it doesn’t stop for anyone. We have to take our preparation. The world is flat now, there is no geographical barrier. Technology has made the world flat. If there is any new technology anywhere in the world, like Japan, America or Europe, it will eventually come to Bangladesh within few days.

FINTECH: Since we are talking about new technology, can you tell us what will be the benefit of operating the Bangabandhu satellite?

If there is any disaster in our country, if the towers for network are ruined, the satellite can provide the backup support. It is expensive but in times of such need, it will proven to be beneficial. The satellite has also become a boon for Bangladesh because it acts as one of the indicators of Bangladesh’s amazing economic development.

FINTECH: Digital Bangladesh was the main election manifesto of this government. How do you interpret Digital Bangladesh from AMTOB’s point of view?

The idea of starting the Digital Bangladesh campaign by this government back in 10 years ago was a great one. The plan or the vision of that campaign was to give momentum and it has been succeeded in doing so. This is because in the last one decade, Bangladesh has done wonders in establishing connectivity. The mobile industry paved the highway of technology, because of which people even at the root level are being connected.

The projects that were undertaken in the name of Digital Bangladesh, each of them has achieved something. These things would not have happened if we had not emphasized on the target of building a Digital Bangladesh. If I talk about SDGs, United Nations has targeted achieving all SDGs globally by 2030. Bangladesh government has created a separate cell for SDGs. Each and every ministry for SDG has set their target and continuously monitoring how they are being achieved.

If they are monitored properly, then Bangladesh will make progress in achieving the SDGs by 2030. However, there is problem in one area. If you look at the global index, you will find Bangladesh is lagging behind. It is because the official records have not been updated and old data from the Bangladesh Statistical Bureau is sent to foreign organizations. This area needs to be looked into.

The second thing is that the scope for research in our country is minimal. If we had concentrated more on research, things would have been better. All the regulatory and policy decisions are based on perception or some discussion or news. However research helps you take a sustainable decision. I see the deficiency in this area. I feel that if we can invest and promote research, it will not only make Digital Bangladesh more sustainable, it will also help us achieve our targets of 2041 or 2100.

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