Low-cost services are our DNA: Uninor COO

By Ibrahim Ahmad & Krishna Mukherjee

At a time, when most telcos are mulling to join the 4G bandwagon, Uninor, which has 2G presence in six telecom circles in India, is confident that its out-of-the box technologies and ‘sabse sasta’ mantra will help it remain afloat.

Voice&Data interviews Tanveer Mohammad, Chief Operating Officer, Uninor, to understand its business strategies for the next couple of years.

Voice&Data: You have been here in India for almost a year now, so what were some of your key achievements in the past 12 months?

Tanveer Mohammad: When I joined Uninor almost a year ago, at first actually I got really thrilled by the energy, by the passion of the Uninor team and also by the aspiration level of our customers because I have been travelling in all the circles and I am very pleased to see the young population, the kind of aspiration they have and how they are depending upon the communication as a whole to uplift their livelihood.

So, what I immediately realized is that this is a very happening place and here the relationship between operators and customers are so strong that if you can play it together then there will be lot of other things for ourselves and we can also help the society to become more empowered.

Secondly, when I joined we were in some sort of transition because initially we were focussing very much on voice, in 2014 we started doing some sort of data as well so what we realized was that going forward, we started understanding that what should be the future needs and what type of preparation we need for the future. So, immediately I also started looking into the fact what kind of preparation is really required at our end, so that when the real demand strikes we can also deliver at the right point of time.
And then, we realized that some preparations need to be taken in terms of network, partnerships we have like the media partner, the IT partners so that together in a short time we can develop ourselves.

It is also about network readiness, transmission readiness, and some of the things that are very integral part for your operational need like energy, rental which forms big part of your operating cost because going forward we have to deliver in a deliberate way to become cost-effective.

To give you an example, to run the network you need energy but to the customer it really does not matter. Whether we have put up our base stations in a perfect air-conditioning or may be in the open, he is just bothered about the service whether it’s coming or not.
And we have to address all these parts so that we get what it requires and get rid of what actually is not required to provide the service. All these things come after realization and I am very happy today that at least we have made a plan that in the next couple of years what should be our focus areas. So, plans and foundations are in place.

Voice&Data: Please share some of the major highlights of the plan.

Tanveer Mohammad: The network consists of three major elements one is the radio network that is the base station, core network that is switching and the transmission network. We will renew our radio network with latest technology so that we use spectrum efficiently. In India, spectrum is a very scarce resource and the aim is to make it efficient not only for voice but also for data usage.

And when it comes about upgrading to a new technology, it should be seamless, we should be able to do it very smoothly. So, we are addressing them, modernizing the whole radio network. So, all 24,000 sites we will be renewing over the next two years. Then about the core part we will be renewing that as well so that we have the readiness for the future.
And we have the intelligence built in so that we understand customers’ experience in a better way and address that part. Another important thing is the transmission. In Uninor, we operate in an outsourced kind of a model — all our infrastructure providers are from the tower companies, the transmission is from media companies.

To give you an example, just in a minute you can talk only for about 60 seconds but in a minute there’s no boundary that how much data you are consuming.

Hence, the need of transmission will increase manifold, and we need to have a right kind of model there so that we can address that part as well.

Finally, everything has to be done in a cost-effective way and we will be addressing our energy consumption, our runover networks services, managed services or other things, so that we have the scalability built in our model so that we offer services in a cost-effective way, continuing with the slogans of ‘sabse sasta’ call, ‘sabse sasta’ internet, etc.

Voice&Data: You have spent a lot of time in Bangladesh and the market to some extent looks similar to that of India. What would be your key learnings from that market that you will be bringing here?

Tanveer Mohammad: First thing is that when we talk about network modernization, in Bangladesh most of the operators have already gone through this phase.

That gave me the confidence to challenge ourselves in that way, if we can do that in Bangladesh why can’t we do that in India. Bangladesh is also a country where energy is very scarce, same as in India but the kind of efficiency what I have seen there if we can bring that to India, then, I think a huge amount of electricity could be saved.
Energy efficiency in network in Bangladesh is good and what we have seen is that there’s an opportunity of improving it in the range of 30%.

And if you can do that, it would help us in two ways – to save our cost and the saved electricity could be used in many of the rural households, where there is no electricity at this moment so it can be extended to these parts. We will also be reducing our carbon footprint in the process, which would be also helpful. And otherwise, it’s the same culture, same spirit, passion and energy you see here.

Voice&Data: One of the interesting things about your professional career is that you were a CTO with engineering background, but now you have moved from a CTO’s role to that of a COO. How do you think the change in role will help Uninor?

Tanveer Mohammad: I worked as a CTO in Grameen Phone, where I joined at an entry-level position and grew with the company. Actually, I step in all the ladders, and this helped me to gain experience from the different phases of challenges, mindset of different groups and the ecosystem that really impacts the business.

For me, the most important thing is always to know the basics. To know what really impacts your customers, customers’ experience and whatever we do if it does not benefit your customers it has no sense. At times, we overdo things without completely understanding how it would benefit the customer and I think that experience I am bringing in and here I am getting more opportunities, because the business environment is a bit different, in Bangladesh it is mostly insourced, where we have to develop most of the things, here there is already a developed ecosystem of outsourcing.

What I am able to do here is that I can really focus on some of the core elements without really being worried about some of the things, which are handled by our partners. So that’s why we are able to talk about the 24,000 modernization plans (of base stations) over a period of two years. I don’t think that would have been possible in Bangladesh, as everything would have been handled by us.
So, it’s about not losing the focus from your basics but expanding so that you can go closer to your customers. That kind of change or evolution I can see in myself.

Voice&Data: Sometimes we get the sense that the technology guys are very enthusiastic about bringing in some new technologies and as a result, there is some tussle between the board and the technology guys. Do you think that having a technology background helps you to manage the current role better?

Tanveer Mohammad: What I really believe in is definitely I have to take the responsibility of the technology but at the same time my role is to ensure that proper bridging is there between business and the technology and as I said earlier no technology would be successful unless and until it is elevating the customer experience.

There are more people in my team so I would not engage myself in detailing about the technologies but rather I would engage myself in making sure that we are bringing in something that is helping the business.
I am trying to widen up my role a bit. So that, instead of fighting in between technology and business domain rather it would be about how can I bring two parts together.

Voice&Data: One of the tenets, Uninor believes in is to be best in basic services, mass-market distribution, low-cost of operations. Can you share some instances when you were able to do all these successfully?

Tanveer Mohammad: We started with voice then we started getting into data. So, we started giving the basic data services to our customers but the basic term is very dynamic term. What is basic today might be different from what is basic tomorrow. This whole transformational journey is helping us to take care of basic whichever is coming into the future. So, today it is about Whatsapp and Facebook, tomorrow it could be videos as well. The whole journey is about getting ready for that.
About the mass-market distribution, I think, it has been Telenor’s biggest failure in India so we will continue to focus on that.

Not only that, from technology side we will support the distribution so that they have all the intelligence, the smartest tools, and
we can have the right kind of vision among the huge distribution base.

As far as low-cost operation is concerned, this is our DNA because at this moment we believe we are doing a good job in terms of voice, and we want to extend that to data as well. So, what we will do in the future, we will meet the customer experience; we will meet the ever evolving expectation of our customers but definitely in an affordable way so that our customers can actually see the value for money.

Voice&Data: So, the plans are in place for affordable services for the next two years, could you please give us a ballpark of subscribers’ base that you are targeting during the time-period?

Tanveer Mohammad: One of our core focus areas is to increase the footprint of our customers. I can’t give you the exact numbers but there’s quite an aggressive plan for that.
On top of that, we always check the level of our offerings for voice and data and our internal target is to excel on these figures.

In a way, we try to get rid of all unnecessary things and focus on the core things to be relevant to the market.
What I can tell you is that Telenor is focussing long-term in India and that’s the reason we are undertaking huge steps, which also show that we will keep on expanding.

Still, we are not covering a large section of the population and we plan to address those quarters and that ever-changing demand of our customers.

Voice&Data: You mentioned about aspirations but do you think with 4G coming in, people will still be interested in 2G? Don’t you think people will aspire to get into the 4G platform?

Tanveer Mohammad: We have to understand the realities and practicalities, the new technologies are coming in but at the same time devices are also very integral part for availing those technologies and these are quite limited. At the same time, we are keeping a very close focus on how things are developing and as part of our transformational journey we are also preparing for ourselves for the future and there is other part of the ecosystem like the spectrum, etc., so we are also exploring different opportunities to enrich ourselves.

When the right time comes as we have the right kind of preparation we will be keen to upgrade ourselves to the available path to be relevant to the market. We are keeping a very close focus on that and preparing for the future.

Voice&Data: In that direction could you please share a bit about the latest technologies for your network and IT infrastructure that Uninor will be investing in?

Tanveer Mohammad: We are getting our radio networks ready for all the new technologies. In the future, it will be only software upgrade whatever path you would like to go for. The core will be ready for everything, as I said we are also working with our transmission partners and we are getting ready for the ever-increasing demand on the data network.
Similarly on the IT systems, the product offerings will be more complex like bundling etc., so we are preparing for that as well. On the BSS part, we will start working on data analytics to understand our customers’ demand behaviour in a much better way and we can really start meeting their demands, so we getting into the smarter BI systems, big data platforms, we are actually taking the right steps.

In the last couple of years, we got actively engaged with our customer interface, we upgraded our CRM system, we gave more insights to our call centers so that they have a better visibility of our customers. It’s a journey not only on the network side, but the overall IT system needs to be in sync with it. So, in the next couple of years it’s going to be very interesting.

Voice&Data: How much investment are you planning in technology in the next 2-3 years?

Tanveer Mohammad: This is going to be the highest investment whatever we have done in the last 4-5 years. We are investing quite a lot. These figures are little dynamic but we have got approvals from the board to carry on this transformation journey.

Voice&Data: Quality of service has been an important issue in the telecom sector and most of the telcos blame lack of base stations, spectrum for that. How do you see this problem?

Tanveer Mohammad: Of course, to address the issue we need spectrum, right base station at right place, right kind of capacity so definitely these are prerequisites, but we are taking it one step ahead wherever there a call drop we are trying to compensate the customers by giving few minutes free. We also monitor it very closely, very proactively.

Voice&Data: Are you also looking at taking up enterprise customers in a big way?

Tanveer Mohammad: Once the network modernization is done, we will then be ready to evaluate whether we get into the enterprise segment or not. At the moment, the main focus is on consumers’ part and gradually enterprise would come as we get ready.

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