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PTCL ready to face the competition

Interview - April 7, 2014
Providing telephonic and Internet services nation-wide, Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) is the backbone for country's telecommunication infrastructure. In an interview with Upper Reach, President and talks about the potential of ICT growth in Pakistan as competition in the industry increases
Pakistan has marked its first democratic transition in many years and investors around the world are already hoping that the country can finally make progress in the key issues that are holding back its development. You are the leader of the greatest foreign investments into this country and leading the first ICT Company in Pakistan. What is your personal outlook on Pakistan’s economy in the next years?

Ever since I’ve come back to this country I’ve taken over this position, this charge. I have always been upbeat about Pak-China and Pakistan’s future despite the difficulties and hardships we have come across simply by looking at the people, country and its size and the level of services. There are a lot of opportunities here for the foreign investors to come to Pakistan. Pakistan at large is underprovided be it in telecom, ICT or health. We feel that there is a lot more to; my outlook for the future is that every time I leave my office and travel around this country I come back to my office with one message that is how much more I need to do for this country and that I haven’t done enough.

What is the potential that Pakistan has especially in the ICT sector as it is a nation of two hundred billion people?

I have worked in this sector for the last seven years, that’s how far my experience goes. I have witnessed the telecom sector in Pakistan and the ICT sector when it was still growing in the initial stages. Overall the sector has done well over the last seven years but I still feel strongly that ICT in Pakistan, that broadband in Pakistan is still not on the map not on the global map at least because when I look at the benchmarks for countries in Asia not comparing benchmarks for myself with developed and advanced countries like South Korea and Japan or Europe. Just in South East Asia we feel there is a lot to be done. There is penetration and the ICT, employment is still in the country on its primitive figures.

Broadband penetration in Pakistan is no more than 2 percent. It is expected that after the auction the competition among telecom operators and ICT companies will increase and that’s why I believe PTCL has just set a new benchmark for broadband speed for the whole country. How are you preparing for this new surge in competition and how do you plan to position after the auction?

For me, the broadband surge after the competition as a company although we have led the broadband development and employment for the last seven years, we are the first to enter the market and today after seven years of investing we have emerged to be the leading provider the number one provider. I still say that let the 3G come, some people say the delay of 3G has given me a chance but I tell them that it’s a loss because the eco system which is created for all of the country is still not there so when that eco system is created all the stakeholders will benefit from this and besides it’s too large for me to eat all, we need people to come and deploy and invest because then we will create bigger and large eco system from which we will all benefit.

As the consideration that internet will bring up to 20/20 the amount of users that will be in Pakistan. A lot of investment is expected in Pakistan, a lot of foreign direct investment is expected in the country.

Case in point, this company is the only company which has invested in building the global highways connecting Pakistan with the rest of the world. Today we are operating in three major submarine international cable system and the forth is coming in two years time. This huge capacity is planned to link Pakistan with the world till the year 2020. If I don’t see 3G coming and people coming and the ecosystem we created then I wonder how we are going to fill up these pipes. These pipes are laid and invested to fill them up and for that we need to see people and the 3G, 4G and even 5G coming in order to fill up these pipes. This is how I truly look at it.

So you see a potential?

Absolutely! People say 3G and 4G is a potential threat to PTCL and the fixed line system but I tell them that this is a means to new opportunities for us. I see that today whatever we do the deployment of broadband as an industry, the awareness is not there, the ecosystem is whereby you have local content, application development, users using this under move portability is all going to help this industry and us all.

What is the prospect for international partnerships and collaborations for example how will this new cable act as a benefiter?

We are already part of a international collaboration these cables have been laid, lets say, between China and Europe and they have connected 15 countries which is on the way and we are always doing collaborations with international operators that’s why its called the cable consortium.

Broadband has increased its share in the revenue mix of PTCL. What is your strategy to continue to diversify your revenue mix to make PTCL more sustainable for the future?

When Etisalat came to PTCL by acquiring the 26 percent of the strategic share with 100 percent management, I used to call PTCL the Telephone Company of Pakistan that means it was seen as a company which was providing plain telephones services, it was the main and only product we have had and 70 percent of our revenues were coming from voice demo scripts and 30 percent was voice international and that’s why I called it the telephone company of Pakistan although it was called PTCL. This was government owned, the state monopoly worked and it was overstaffed more than 67,000 employees and they were serving around 5 million telephone lines. I think we have managed to do here is change the business model of PTCL and cut down the voice demo scripts as it was not going to be sustainable in the long run and we started investing and building our broadband multiple services.
Today, PTCL as a company offers telephone, broadband and IPTV and TV services. The outcomes of broadband has been phenomenal, we have seen growth a three digits increase in the year. This is how we have managed to transform the company from the voice centric into the multiple play specifically data centric, internet and broadband, this is how we are making our numbers and growing. Today if I tell you that yes, we want to be the ICT player of this country the integrative operators of this country and one way we have not done yet and we are definitely heading towards it is today we are two companies, one owned by the PTCL Group and the other Ufone. We are the only single telecom operators in this country who exist in both the fixed lines and the mobiles. I foresee in the coming years that both companies are merging and becoming one single group for one reason alone that is for integrative bundle services to our customers.

So you said this is a year for consolidations right?

Yes, that’s right. We do foresee that this is on our roadmap and in two years time we will be merging both companies and creating one single company which can offer bundled and integrative services to both residential and businesses.

It would be very interesting for our readers to know about your vision of mobile financing and ecommerce.

Mobile financing is an area of huge potential unfortunately we achieved stability in the country a little late but last year we launched our Ubank in micro finance and Upaisa has been launched a product for branchless banking starting initially with online payment and online local money transfer but now we are taking this one step further because of our active presence in UAE and Saudi Arabia where large Pakistani’s communities are living and we witness large remittances and money transfer, we will open this so that we can facilitate the online bank management and transfer of remittances between at least three countries to start with.

Do you have in mind the UK? The UK sends about 1.5 billion US dollars.

WALID IRSHAID: Yes, we know that it’s coming from four destinations. It’s UAE, Saudi Arabia, UK, Europe and USA.

So maybe in the near future?

Yes, that’s what I’m saying initially starting from four because we have a presence in these countries so that makes easier to integrate, interface and to provide these facilities.

I really like the idea of PTCL joining the Pakistanis around the world. What are your activities to give back to the community in corporate social responsibility inside Pakistan apart of course from the whole joining of Pakistani’s around the world?

We have been very active. I think every year we have been helping the communities. First of all when anything happened we have always taken the lead in supporting whether it has been the flood or the drought or whatever, we also provide for the orphans. The biggest support that I do for the country and I do this as part of my corporate section responsibility that is I mandated myself here in PTCL to reduce the burden of the community on the unemployment, I volunteered to take every year 500 to 600 fresh graduates, I train them here for a full one year, I provide them with pocket money every month, and I can tell you that this program is so successful that, and this is the second year of running this program, when new took people out within the first three months many of these managed to score better jobs and the people who continued with us, only the good ones after spending one year, we created an opportunity for them to go overseas, to find jobs within the country and we created job opportunities inside the company after they finished their internship program for a few hundreds of people. These people would have been otherwise on the streets, jobless. We managed as one organization to call on so many people and creating for 500 or 600 job opportunities every year. This is our second term for the program and every year now we will train something like 500 or 600 people and as I said here this is not taking them and stacking them in offices they go through a rigorous training program whereby they are supervised and put in most demanding jobs mostly graduates on merit basis. Just to tell you the size for you better understanding. When we advertise because we want it to be transparent and on merit, last year people told me we want to have 500 and 50,000 applied including undergraduates and post graduates. I have absolutely no regret in starting this program because the good work of these people is brilliant.

And that’s what Pakistan needs, Education.

So this is just the result of one organization, imagine if this culture is presented by all the others. If I talk about CSR, I really made it a contribution towards the community and providing some relief for the long term. Whether they stayed with me or left that training helped people greatly because when the other party sees this individual has work experience with PTCL this improves his opportunities and prospects.

We will be publishing this in the global investment infrastructures in London in June, in the London Stock Exchange where there will be many companies looking to invest in infrastructure around the world. Pakistan, as we know that has a great deal of development needed to do in ICT and or all the programs the government is planning in e-government, e-agriculture, e-health. From PTCL where do you think are the areas for the UK can help the most or collaborate the most with Pakistan, with PTCL?

The areas that I feel will grow given opportunity through foreign partnership would be mostly the area of application development. I think this country has a lot of talented software engineers. For this to succeed we would require work on two major things, first on the telecom development of Pakistan tends to last despite enormous resources. They still have to import every telephone every device and every chip, every USB from outside even PC’s are assembled here but not available to the people, the tablets and PC’s. Secondly, applications you see here when I say application I keep breathing transformations smart cities and the people of Pakistan, her Excellency the minister Anusha Rahma, ever since she took over she talked to me about e-government and e-support application. The essence of the whole thing that you need is local applications developed and customized to the needs to e health needs and etc. We don’t have developers here, we don’t have enough to do this so the content lacks, the reason why people rely on downloading information because there are no local distributors either. YouTube has been blocked for a while, certainly I don’t know why. Therefore we need to see more involvement on application.
Now the talk of the industry is about OTT, over the top delivery, TV services and messaging services. I don’t see much development happening here as we still see ourselves sitting here and just following modeling and imitating the world, we have no content of our own in this country.

Does it align with your vision of forming human capital development?

Yes, that’s right. I can tell you for certain that this country is rife with opportunities and investment opportunities since the new government has taken over all the business communities are upbeat about the future, we are filled with lots of hope and confidence that we are going to see a brighter Pakistan, more promising and fulfilling Pakistan. I have realized that there are no quick solutions to problems inherited over the years. We started seeing all the positive indicators today, the compass is taking us to the right place. The turnover around us we see many positive signs. No matter what happens to the security you cannot wipe out 200 million people from this country. You have to educate them, feed them, give medical services and be part of the global community. This means that the 200 million people who are still on the rise have to be served. On several occasions I have told people that Pakistan is not a place for a quick win. For short term you can come and maybe be disappointed, when you come here you have to be a bit patient and think on long term basis and this I say from personal experience that I’ve gathered working in PTCL.

On a more personal note, you are leading the company that is going to reshape the future of Pakistan in the future development, you’ve recently been named the vice chairman of SAMENA, as Nelson Mandela once said, “once you get on top of a mountain, then there is another mountain and another mountain to climb.” You’ve reached the top of one mountain what is your next goal in life?

I want to find somebody who will reach to “that other mountain”. This is my challenge to find that person who will take us to the next mountain