Teletalk Bangladesh Limited, the lone state-owned mobile operator, was incorporated in 2004 aiming to ensure telecommunication services for all walks of life and create fair competition in the sector.
The government also privileged the operator with making use of its SIM cards mandatory in availing different crucial services and giving priority in the radio frequency (spectrum) allotment for both 4G and 5G, so that it can grow faster.
However, the company, despite having the privileges, failed to secure a competitive position even in 18 years. For example, of the country's total 18 crore mobile subscriber base, Teletalk serves only 66 lakh, which is merely 3.66%. Moreover, it is losing market day by day.
Then, what are the barriers to Teletalk's growth?
"The businesses of the current world are very dynamic which require situation-wise decisions along with long-term plans, but the government-run companies including Teletalk have a great weakness here," said telecom expert Sumon Ahmed Sabir, who is the chief technology officer of Fiber@home Limited that provides countrywide telecommunication transmission networks.
All the government companies were under different ministries and led by their secretaries, he explained, adding that they (the secretaries) were not even associated with the companies' businesses at all, in many cases. "If such a person becomes the decision-maker, it is naturally tough for them to make timely wise decisions."
Sumon Ahmed Sabir said lack of accountability was another key reason behind Teletalk's failure.
He, however, said having a government organisation in a particular sector was worthy to counter monopolies. "Besides, Teletalk contributed to providing telecom services in remote areas, where the private operators were reluctant to go due to poor returns."
Dhaka University Professor of robotics and mechatronics engineering Lafifa Jamal believes inadequate investment and lack of infrastructure were the key reasons behind Teletalk's slow progress.
"Teletalk failed to develop infrastructure well in the long period and this is obviously for lack of investment. As a result, its subscribers suffer much and they often face poor services," she added.
"However, the company was expanding gradually, but not at the expected pace."
To improve the services and satisfy customers, the professor suggested Teletalk develop infrastructure and increase investment as soon as possible.
Echoing Sabir and Lafifa, several other telecom experts also said the bureaucratic management system and the lack of accountability dragged Teletalk down despite its huge potentialities.
It needs to go through the red tape of the bureaucratic system to frame or apply a policy, which is a major barrier, among others.
When contacted, Posts and Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar told The Business Standard that Teletalk was not established for a commercial purpose, instead, the purpose was to ensure fair competition in the sector and eradicate the intra-country digital divide.
"We should not only look at the commercial side of the operator but also other aspects. Before criticising Teletalk, we should consider investments of other operators," he added.
Limited investment key challenge
The three other competitors of Teletalk came to the market with heavy investments. Of them, market leader Grameenphone has so far invested around Tk42,000 crore, Robi Tk33,000 crore and Banglalink Tk24,000 crore.
But, the journey of Teletalk was started with only Tk643 crore and the investment has now reached Tk4,900 crore – far lower than others. The state-owned entity is falling behind due to the investment limitation, while private operators are growing bigger with remarkable business returns.
As of December 2021, the country's total mobile subscribers reached 18.10 crore, of which Grameenphone had 8.34 crore, Robi 5.36 crore and Banglalink had 3.72 crore users.
Subscribers hardly find services
Md Mamun Muntasir, a resident of the capital's Banasree area, purchased a Teletalk SIM learning that it was needed for availing some government services. But, keeping the SIM operational becomes a challenge for him as he hardly finds recharge points or customer care centres of the operator in his locality.
Mamun is one of the thousands of sufferers, who struggle to use Teletalk SIM. They use the connections for just availing the government services, in which Teletalk is a must.
In contrast, recharging stations of other mobile operators are available everywhere.
Talking to The Business Standard, many vendors said they were willing to provide Teletalk recharge service but they merely found the marketing team of the operator to have balance from them.
The shortcomings – inadequate customer care centres, call centres and retailer points – prompt Teletalk's customers to switch to other operators.