- 10m non-resident Bangladeshis are main users of international calls
- 2.5 lakh expatriates currently stuck in Bangladesh due to lockdowns abroad
- Enterprise and business calls have slumped amid global shutdowns
- Overseas calls gradually decreasing due to app-based communication
- IGW operators struggling to collect remittance payments amid pandemic
Rafiq Didar, an expatriate Bangladeshi in Oman, used to make calls to his family two-three times a day before the Covid-19 pandemic. But he had to cut down the frequency of calls as his earnings dropped as businesses shut down in Oman.
Now he barely makes one call a day to his family residing in the Charfassion upazila of Bhola. When he does make several calls, he tries to make those over the internet.
The pandemic has created an unprecedented economic and financial crisis for the overseas call sector in Bangladesh, along with other sectors.
According to the International Gateway (IGW) operators who deal with overseas calls, international incoming call volume declined by 33 percent from the beginning of March to the end of June 2020.
As a result, IGW operators have suffered substantial revenue losses which will only aggravate further in the coming days, fear industry insiders.
Mushfique Manzoor, chief operating officer of the IGW Operators Forum, said, "The real impact is more severe than the mere revenue loss due to a 33 percent call volume drop."
He explained that international incoming minutes, the main revenue source of IGW operators, are generated by non-resident Bangladeshis spread across the world. They call their families and friends at home and also make business and enterprise calls to Bangladesh.
There are more than 10 million non-resident Bangladeshis in different countries, according to data of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).
But many expatriate Bangladeshis have returned home since the advent of the coronavirus crisis and are now unable to return to their workplaces in foreign countries.
BMET data shows that around 2.5 lakh people are now stuck in Bangladesh as more than 185 countries across the globe are under complete or partial lockdown.
"As businesses across the world operate on a limited scale, enterprise and business calls have also slumped. Both these factors in combination have dealt a severe blow to international incoming minutes since the last week of March," said Mushfique Manzoor.
Meanwhile, some IGW service providers said that there are no visual changes in the overseas business.
Mir Telecom Limited, one of the leading IGW operators in the country, said that business has remained the same as it was before the pandemic.
"Incoming and out-going calls are almost the same as expatriate Bangladeshi communities are concerned about their families at home. So, the business situation is not very different," said Mir Telecom Director Mahreen Nasir.
"However, the total number of overseas calls have been gradually decreasing over the years due to the rise of app-based communication," she added.
In July 2017, the total international incoming call minutes routed through IGW operators were 1,966.26 million, which dropped to 1,453.92 million call minutes by June 2018. On the other hand, the total international outgoing call minutes were 16.08 million in July 2017 and 12.82 million in June 2018.
Industry insiders say that IGW operators are struggling to collect foreign remittance payments from clients due to the global economic meltdown.
This has resulted in cash-flow drying up, leaving the operators strapped for cash to bear operating costs such as salaries, office rent, important technical services, bank loan instalments.
However, they said they can come out of this crisis if the government provides adequate support, including reducing the annual licence renewal fees, extension of deadline to pay the annual licence renewal fee without late payment charges till December 2020, and reducing the portion of revenue shared with the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC).