Home Insider Expat Insider Realizing “Internet for All” Ambition: A Conversation with Telenor Myanmar’s CEO Petter...

Realizing “Internet for All” Ambition: A Conversation with Telenor Myanmar’s CEO Petter Furberg

Telecommunications sector is where Myanmar witnesses one of the significant changes and exciting challenges having direct impacts on millions of people in both urban and rural areas. It has become a competitive market since the two international private telecoms providers were licensed for the first time in the country in 2013 to run along with the state-owned one and now in 2015, the competition has reached its peak. One of them, Norway based Telenor entered the market in Mandalay region in 2014 September, shortly followed by the October launch in Yangon last year Telenor Myanmar’s CEO Mr. Petter Furberg, who has previously served in Norwegian Ministry of Finance and Norwegian Parliament before joining Telenor Group 15 years ago, working in a number of the group’s senior management positions, now reveals the journey of Telenor in Myanmar starting from its very first step to current projects and future plans together with his insightful opinions on the country and its telecommunications sector. Including Myanmar, Telenor is operating a total of 13 markets: seven in Europe – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary, Bulgaria and six Asian markets of Thailand, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh with 192 million subscribers around the world.[paypal]

MI : When was your first visit to Myanmar? What was your impression back then and how has it changed now?

My first trip to Myanmar was in August 2013, approximately one month after Telenor had been selected as one of the winners in the telecommunications licensing process. It is fair to say I fell in love with Myanmar from the very first visit, because of its natural beauty and also because of the people I have met here. It is also a country steep in rich culture and history, and thus has a lot to offer the inquisitive mind. I travel a lot across the country and two years on I continue to get the ‘wow’ feeling in terms of what Myanmar has to offer, and the great people I am meeting at every point.

MI : Please tell us about your previous positions in Telenor Group and your experiences during working around the world.

I joined Telenor Group 15 years ago, and have served in a number of senior management positions within the group. Before Realizing “Internet for All” Ambition: A Conversation with Telenor Myanmar’s CEO Petter Furberg Charlie Greene coming to Myanmar I was Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at dtac, Telenor’s business unit in Thailand and the second largest mobile operator in the country. Prior to that, I was dtac’s Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), responsible for product development, sales and marketing. Before dtac I served as Senior Vice President and Head of Financial Services at Telenor Group. Before joining Telenor I held senior positions in the Norwegian Parliament (Storting) and the Nor wegian Ministry of Finance.

MI : How did you end up as the CEO of p as the CEO of Telenor Myanmar?

I have been in Telenor for many years and have built knowledge within many different functions of our business. I had also been a leader in different companies and cultures, particularly on doing business in Asia. All of this probably mattered when the leadership of Telenor Group asked me if I would be interested in working in Myanmar. To be in Myanmar and to be part of building a mobile network so that ordinary people in Myanmar can use good voice and internet services was for me a dream come true. I see myself as one of the luckiest most privileged people in the world for having been given this opportunity.

MI : In which ways working in Myanmar different from working in any other countries?

I would characterise working in Myanmar over the past couple of years as both challenging as well as enriching. Challenging in the sense that Myanmar has only recently rejoined the fold of nations after many years in isolation, and is in the process of reforms on many fronts. This naturally creates a lot of momentum in many different areas, but you also do feel a sense of inertia in parts, with people, processes and ways of working that are often feel dated, and in some way behind neighboring nations.

That said, this is also a highly enriching time to be here. The past three years has already seen rapid changes in many aspects of society, business, and life in Myanmar, and the coming few years will see even more changes in almost all sectors. This is starkly different from almost any other country I have worked in, where basic frameworks to easily settle in and do business are already in place and are relatively mature. It is exciting because you feel you are centrally involved in bringing this change – the telecommunications sector alone has seen immense changes over the past year. This is an experience you cannot replicate in any other peer market today – and probably not be able to do so ever again.

MI : Why do you think Telenor was chosen to be given Myanmar’s private telecom license?

When the license application process started, Telenor was already one of the biggest mobile operators in the world. Asia has been part of our immediate recent fantastic growth story in recent years, and we have a solid track record in operating in five of the Asian markets closest to Myanmar (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia) for more than 20 years. I believe our ability to very quickly bring a mass-market focused operations to Myanmar was an advantage; this will be the core of our business strategy here, but we will also be able to tap into leverage our expertise of serving the demands of more savvy and upwardly-mobile customers in markets like Thailand and Malaysia, and from the world’s most advanced telecommunications markets in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

MI : What kind of services is Telenor currently offering?

Telenor offers mobile voice and internet services. Our promise to customers is that we will continue to be the most affordable operator in Myanmar, and we aim to bring our services to all parts of the country, in the shortest time possible. A core mission for Telenor in all the markets we operate in is to deliver “Internet For All”, and this will remain a central focus for Telenor in Myanmar also.

MI : What is Telenor’s network coverage in the whole country like? What are your plans for network coverage expansion in the near future?

Today, Telenor provides mobile connectivity in ten major divisions and states, namely Mandalay, Yangon, Sagaing, Bago, Magway, Ayeyarwaddy, Kayin, Mon, and Kachin, and in union territory Nay Pyi Taw. We recently announced plans for expansion to Shan, Kayah and Taninthari.

At present, Telenor has over 2,100 towers nationwide – all of which are equipped with 3G capabilities. We expect to roll out between 3,000 and 4,000 towers by end 2015. Since September 2014, we have expanded our network to more than 50% of population and townships in Myanmar, and todate have more than 30,000 points-of-sales (POS) across the country.

Apart from expanding coverage we are also focused on adding capacity and optimising quality in areas where we are already present. We are working hard to improve the quality of our network in the cities: in Yangon we have doubled the number of towers to more than 700 from 348 at the launch in October 2014, while in Mandalay we now have more than 350 towers turned on, from 70 at point of launch in September last year. In February, we also opened a fibre link to Thailand, which continues to deliver significant improvement in data connectivity, and enhances our ability to deliver a quality experience of our network.

Our intent is to reach 80% population coverage by 2018, and continue to bring the most affordable mobile voice and internet services to customers all across the country in the coming few years.

MI : What kind of hardships did Telenor face with due to the lack of infrastructure and how did you overcome them?

Our biggest challenge has been and still is to build enough towers and sites. We believe that to deliver a good level of service quality to customers all across Myanmar we will need to build upwards of 9,000 sites, and that remains our 4-5 year goal. Our partners and we are getting better at it, but I would still wish that we could have had more towers and sites today to make our service better in the areas we have launched, and also to quickly get to new areas where we still have not launched our services. To overcome these challenges we have worked very closely with our partner tower companies, but also with the government and local authorities. We believe we are getting stronger day by day, and this will remain a relentless focus for us in the coming years.

MI : How do you deal with customers’ expectation being one of the Myanmar’s very first private telecommunications providers?

Our industry is one that will bring enormous change to Myanmar in the coming years. Already we are starting to realise that there is a lot of pent-up demand and customers have been waiting for the operators to expand their networks quickly, and I believe this is not just Telenor’s experience but our competitors’ also. Everywhere we launch I hear two sentiments: firstly people are happy that you’re there, and secondly they want more. Our job is to deliver exactly that – expand to more areas, and work on innovating and improving our quality day-by-day. To succeed in being loved by our customers, I strongly believe we must remain restless, and we must remain relentless.

MI : What are your market strategies to compete against other telecom providers?

The people in Myanmar can always trust that Telenor will have the most affordable voice and internet services, with the simplest and most transparent price plans, and a network and distribution that will reach as many cities, towns, and villages as possible within the next 3-4 years. That is our simple strategy: to be best on serving the mass market customers in Myanmar, and to be the best in distribution, enabling customers from every city, town, and village in Myanmar to gain access to a point of sale where they can buy our services.

However, the devil, as they say, is in the details, and in the way you execute your game-plan. Which is why the third leg of our strategy I feel is really important too, and that is to build a winning and open culture, that will attract and nurture the right mix of talents to will drive the company’s success in the coming years. In every market we operate in Telenor is known to have a DNA of openness and transparency, performance excellence and a desire to win every day. This is also part of the culture in Telenor Myanmar today, in part built from the ground up, but also strengthened with many colleagues from different Telenor business units who are here in this early part of our journey to build this unique culture. And culture, as they say, it is extremely difficult to replicate. This is what I see as a key differentiator for Telenor in all our markets, and certainly in Myanmar.

MI : How do you see the potential of Myanmar’s telecom sector?

Myanmar’s telecoms sector is rapidly evolving, and we estimate that approximately 65% subscribers in the country are already on smartphones. Within our own base of 6.4 million customers, 65% are data users, and close to 60% are smartphone users. There is a steadily growing appetite for data in Myanmar, and usage is peaking every day. It is clearly a sector in what I would describe as ‘hyper-growth’ at the moment – but importantly it is a sector that will spur the growth of other sectors in Myanmar. A connected Myanmar, at all levels of society and business, will accelerate the country’s progress in the coming years.

MI : What are your current Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects?

Our CSR programmes are closely linked to our business strategy – both locally where our goal is to be best at reaching the mass market, and on a Group level where we are committed to building a digital future for all through our Internet For All movement.

Under our Telenor Light Houses programme, we have committed to establishing 200 community information centres in all States and divisions in order to educate the mass market about the possibilities brought by connectivity. The centres are established in partnership with MIDO, the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization. We are currently in the pilot phase of the project, with 16 centres open in areas where we have coverage.

We will also use our connectivity for a mobile health initiative together with Marie Stopes International. Together we will offer maternal and child health advice to people that struggle to receive traditional health services either due to remoteness or inadequate access to information. We have recently launched a mobile application for this, and soon we will introduce an SMSbased system with health advice, tips and reminders.

Myanmar has traditionally been at risk for extreme weather such as cyclones, flooding and earthquakes. Telenor is looking at how we can add value to resilience strengthening activities in Myanmar through mobile connectivity and our customer channels. We are in talks with the BRACED Alliance for a partnership using an SMS based early warning system for severe weather alerts. The objective is to support over 165,000 vulnerable community members from almost 140 villages without access to crucial warning alarms.

Historically, access to knowledge and information has been somewhat limited in Myanmar and there is little local and relevant content on the internet. To this end, we are participating in the Telenor Group-wide Wikimedia partnership and have enabled free access to Wikipedia through our mobile internet. In order to boost the local content, we are also working with the local Wikipedia community to improve the quality and grow the amount of articles in Myanmar language.

We also want to increase financial inclusion in Myanmar. With our local partner Yoma Bank, we will provide mobile financial services to the largely unbanked mass market here. We will offer domestic money transfers but also gradually expand to include international mobile money transfers and salary disbursement services, for example. Finally, we have embarked on an education project that is aligned very much with our focus on underage labour in the supply chain. Last year we branded a number of teashops in Yangon and Mandalay with our Telenor livery and logo. Teashops in Myanmar traditionally have children, who at the cost of continued education, have entered into the workforce at a young age. So we decided to take a proactive step towards addressing underage labour in the branded teashops, by creating a joint pilot project with our Marketing and CR departments, and partnered with the Myanmar Mobile Education project (myME), to provide non-formal education to these young workers.

MI : If you could make a change to one major government policy in order to ease the way of doing business here, what would it be?

Broadly, I would say that our experience in dealing with both the central Union Government and the local authorities has been encouraging, and we see positive indications of development in many areas. One of the key factors that will continue to drive Myanmar’s growth though will be the consistent development of human capital. This is true for almost all sectors, and certainly true for ours. A generation of young, bright, passionate citizens will be critical in driving Myanmar’s ambitions –in terms of further developing the pool of talents already in the country, but also about attracting the repatriation of Myanmar talents from abroad back home to be part of the next chapter in Myanmar’s growth story. We see recognition of this agenda from the government, and along with everybody else are eager to see increased momentum in this area.

MI : How are you enjoying your stay in Myanmar?

I am very much enjoying my time in Myanmar. I feel truly privileged to have the opportunity to work in Myanmar, at this point of the country’s history. I love everything about it – perhaps with the only exception of the heavy rains this time of year![/paypal]