Telenor: ‘It was important not to build too high expectations’

Petter Furberg, chief executive officer, Telenor Myanmar
Norwegian-owned telecoms company Telenor has been celebrating the launch of its mobile phone service in Yangon, after it launched services in Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw. Telenor is rolling out a 3G and 2G network and Qatar-owned Ooredoo, which launched its service in Yangon in August, is providing a 3G network. The arrival of both companies in the market ended a monopoly held by state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. Mizzima’s Yola Berbruggen spoke exclusively to Telenor Myanmar chief executive officer Petter Furberg after the Yangon launch.

What are the first responses of Telenor customers?
Very positive. As we saw also in Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw, there are long lines of people waiting to buy SIM cards and so far they seem to be happy with what we offered both in quality and price. It was important for us not to build too high expectations. Expectations for new telecom operators are already extremely high and very difficult to live up to. So for us it was important to tell people that what we are coming with is what you will get. Now in Yangon we have launched in 44 townships, and there are pluses and minuses. Customers have to be aware that as more customers are coming into this there might be some congestion, but then we will add more transmission sites. Over time we will make sure that our customers get the quality that we really want to deliver. Our commitment is to cover more than 90 percent of the population in five years. We didn’t have to build awareness or create expectations, we were rather trying to take down expectations and be humble.

Initially, there were delays for permits to build transmission towers. is this still an issue?
It is not so much an issue today and it wasn’t really bad really anyway. It was more the fact that in the old days telecom towers were all built by the stateowned MPT and as such they did not have to follow the same rules as a private company would have to do when building a tower. So the process for approving had to be made up at the local levels, the district levels, as well as at the state level. It is because actually inventing the whole approval process and then getting the bureaucrats at all these levels to be comfortable in signing off on these approvals took a little bit of time in the beginning. Now things have been clarified from the central level down to the local levels for us it is easier to operate.

After the military seized power in Thailand in May, Telenor Thailand was ordered to temporarily block access to Facebook. can that happen in Myanmar?
When it comes to areas of lawful intercept and a forced network shutdown, specific rules are being developed. The government has said that particularly when it comes to lawful intercept they are seeking international help from an international organisation to develop those rules and then they will send them out for public hearing. In all countries, there are rules that give the authorities the right to use these kind of tools as long as they are also protecting individuals and the society. In all countries in the world governments will have the right, for public safety for instance, to order a shutdown of the network. In Myanmar the law says that such an order can only be approved by the Union government.When it comes to lawful intercept we have always had a very open dialogue and it has to be based on protecting basic human rights for citizens in Myanmar. If a request for intercept is being made, it has to be based on a court order.

Earlier this year Telenor said it had discovered that child labour was being used at transmission tower building sites. How does telenor deal with the issue of child labour?
It was one of the risks that we were very well aware of when we entered. It’s part of society and Myanmar is one of the countries in the world with the highest risk of child labour. It’s poverty and it’s the social acceptance of it in society which makes it a big problem. But at the same time we said we have our standards and our rules which we follow in all other countries in the world and we do not see Myanmar in a different way than that. So when it comes to normal work Telenor is following the ILO standard which says that you have to be fifteen years or older to work. And when it comes to hazardous work we say that the limit is 18 years. We are focusing on educating all of our vendors, our suppliers and also their sub suppliers.

In addition to that, we are conducting inspections. It is the combination of training and inspections that over time will make these suppliers improve. The focus is not so much about getting rid of vendors or companies that have one case of this, the focus is really on making sure they understand why we have those rules and see that they are improving over time. If they have repeated cases, we will of course consider cancelling the contract. But so far we have not had that when it comes to child labour cases or under-aged labour cases.

Land grabbing is a big problem in Myanmar and land ownership can be murky. How does telenor avoid problems involving contested land?
It’s a big risk. It is also an area that we have paid a lot of attention to from day one. We have generally been focussed on going for private land. We are very focussed on knowing who is the owner of the land, ensure that the ownership papers are in place, showing the history of ownership as well as ensuring that we are talking to all the neighbours. The neighbours need to understand what’s coming, and that they can also in some ways verify that this is really the owner of the land that we are renting from. In the very few cases that we have discovered that our controls didn’t work and where there was uncertainty about the real ownership of the land we decided to move away and find another location.

How is Telenor approaching the task of providing mobile network access in conflict areas?
For all the ethnic states we have established something which we call state liaison officers. They are ambassadors in the local communities. They are well-respected people and are interacting both with the local government, the central government, as well as with the ethnic groups. They are running information and education sessions, they were going out into the local communities holding presentations about what Telenor is doing, what the benefits of telecommunication are and how we can actually help the development in their communities.


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